The real jesus a debate




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THE REAL JESUS – A DEBATE
The last time I was invited to speak here it was for an evening in which my friend Rabbi Norman Solomon was invited to say what a Jew thinks of Christianity, and I to say what a Christian thinks of Judaism. In the course of the evening he was asked about Jesus. ‘Oh, we don’t know much about him,’ was the answer, ‘Next question?’ Can one really leave it at that?
Even in Oxford it is seldom that one has the opportunity directly to hear the views of someone who has made a contribution which is acknowledged over the whole world, well beyond scholarly circles as having changed the whole direction of a debate and whose name is a household word. I should first outline how I see my task. I assume that not everyone present is a professional theologian, in the sense of reading theology at the university. I intend therefore to give a brief outline of the background to the debate about the Historical Jesus and introduce some of the chess-pieces which are moved round the board. As part of that I want to introduce Professor Vermes and explain a little what an important part he has played in the debate. Secondly I shall look at some of the chessboards set up by various players. Finally I wish to set out my own position.
The Historical Jesus – an outline of the debate
I cannot begin at the beginning, but begin exactly 100 years ago with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s great work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906, which summed up the debate in the previous century and gave his own view, that Jesus was a mistaken apocalyptic visionary. He expected the end of the world to come when he sent out his disciples on the final mission. To his surprise they returned, Jesus re-thought the situation and decided that the eschaton would come at his death. A final brilliant passage:
Jesus…in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man, lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn and he throws himself upon it. Then it does turn and crushes him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, he has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great man, who was strong enough to think of himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind, and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still (p. 403).
Here we have the two chief chess-pieces, the king and queen, that is, the Kingdom of God (or, in Mt’s language, of Heaven) and the eschaton, the end of the world. Jesus saw the kingdom of God as coming; but what did he mean by the Kingdom? He proclaimed the eschaton, the end of the world, but in what sense and when did he see it coming?
Twenty years later Rudolf Bultmann swept all the chess pieces off the board and closed it up. His researches into the history of composition of the gospels had convinced him that it was impossible to know anything about the life of the historical Jesus. With his 1926 book Jesus and the Word he closed the debate, and such was his authority that it became impossible to discuss the historical Jesus in reputable scholarly circles in Germany and German-dominated scholarship. There were some exceptions, such as our own CH Dodd and Joachim Jeremias in Germany. Basically the difficulties are two (these strong and brutal pieces will function as castles/rooks when the debate starts again):

  1. The stories about Jesus are folk-stories, handed down among his followers and growing steadily in wonder. The miracles are theological statements, for example, the Feeding of the 5,000 = the Feeding of the 4,000 is simply a decalque of Elisha’s miracle in 2 K 4.42-44, which in turn is an elaboration of Moses’ gift of manna in the desert. The Walking on the Water is simply a statement that Jesus is God, for only God controls the sea and walks on the backs of the waves (in the Psalms). We have only the evangelists’ interpretation of these, and even if there is some historical event underneath these, it is now impossible to recover what this was. We are merely listening to the evangelists’ statement of their own faith.

  2. It is impossible to tell what are the words of Jesus and what are those of the evangelists. It is not merely that the picture given by John is very different from that of the synoptics.

In the synoptics Jesus proclaims the Kingdom; in Jn he proclaims himself, with the seven great ‘I am’ statements, ‘the light of the world, the bread of life, the good shepherd’, etc. In Jn everyone, including Jesus, speaks in the same style and with the same vocabulary, which is in fact that of the author of the gospel. So, although Jn’s geography and chronology may well be better than that of the synoptics – he certainly knew Jerusalem and its surroundings better than they did, and it is doubtful whether any of the three synoptic evangelists had ever been to the Holy Land – write off Jn.

Even between the synoptics there is so much divergence that we cannot get back to the original words. Kingdom of God or of Heaven? The briefest comparison of corresponding passages (I would suggest Mark’s Syro-Phoenician Woman and Matthew’s Canaanite) shows that they pack in their theology and their view of Jesus. Did the woman call Jesus ‘son of David’ or not? Did Jesus congratulate her on her faith, or merely respond to her cheeky remark about dogs under the table? Anyway, is this the same incident as the cure of the centurion’s boy (or son or servant)? Jesus’ one encounter with a gentile, a sick child (or the same gender), a slick verbal exchange, a cure at a distance, resulting in faith.


The debate re-opened again in 1953 with a lecture by Ernst Käsemann, a pupil of Bultmann but by now a well-known professor in his own right, entitled ‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’, who bucked the trend by maintaining that this was a reputable subject of discussion. Thus was launched the ‘New Quest for the Historical Jesus’. By 1962 discussion had got far enough for G. Bornkamm to publish his life of Jesus. I would like to delay a moment at 1967, the year of two important developments:

  1. One of the most important methods of playing the game was now initiated with Norman Perrin’s Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. This consisted in carving a set of criteria for distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic sayings of Jesus (These might play the part of Knights, because they jump all over the place, in quite unexpected directions, wiping out pieces you never thought you would lose). The number and shape of these Knights has varied from time to time. One current set, used in the huge 3-volume work of John P. Meier A Marginal Jew (1991-2001) consists of five:

    1. embarrassment

    2. discontinuity

    3. multiple attestation

    4. coherence

    5. rejection



  1. In that year comes Professor Vermes’ first important contribution of which I am aware, an Appendix to An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts by M. Black, an essay on the expression ‘son of man’. Now enters the discussion for the first time a genuine knowledge of the rabbinic sources. Over the years, but especially with his trilogy beginning with Jesus the Jew (1973) and ending with The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993) the pieces on the chessboard take on a different appearance. Christmas cards have Jewish-looking shepherds and bystanders, but Mary has a nice English face and Jesus is a little English snub-nosed baby. But on the chessboard the pieces have metamorphosed and are all Jewish. Professor Vermes has achieved the true realisation even among general readers that Jesus was a Jew1. During the Nazi era in Germany this had been conveniently forgotten, and even occasionally somehow denied outright, but the whole game changed when Jesus was put back against his Jewish background. Henry ChadwickThe fact that we all now take this for granted is due to my friend here. I won’t compare this to a Copernican Revolution, or even to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; but it was important!



A Survey of Chessboards
The chessboard is now ready. Let the tournament begin! The game consists, of course, not merely capturing the King, but in scraping off the paint which the evangelists and their communities put on him, to see what really lies underneath. Before looking at my own chessboard, it will be useful to wander round the hall and see how the game is going elsewhere, a sample of patterns on the boards. A useful guide here is Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco 1996) or Graham Stanton, Gospel Truth? A New Light on Jesus and the Gospels (HarperCollins, 1995).
A very early game was SGF Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester UP, 1967), which saw the unvarnished Jesus as a Zealot nationalist revolutionary, bent on throwing out the Romans, part of the movement which escalated until 30 years later the Jewish War broke out. After all, most of the names among the chosen disciples are nationalist names, reflecting the great leaders of the Maccabean Revolt 200 years before, Simon (x2), Judas (x2), John. The varnish to disguise this was applied by his still loyal followers when Jesus had failed and had been executed.
For Marcus Borg :Jesus was a charismatic Spirit Person, who healed and exorcised. He was a threat to the social order because he was a social prophet, consorting with outcasts and overturning tables in temple court. He had no pronounced eschatological vision, in the sense that he did not expect the end of the world in his own time. This view is expressed chiefly in Jesus a New Vision (1988), Meeting Jesus again for the first time, the historical Jesus and the heart of contemporary faith (1994).

For John Dominic Crossan Jesus was an uneducated, countercultural philosopher of folk wisdom, keen to overturn any sort of hierarchy, family structures or religious systems, any sort of ‘brokerage’ or system by which progress to God or to values was accessed. Direct access was the password. Perhaps the fullest presentation is in The Historical Jesus, the life of a mediterranean Jewish peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).


Gerd Lüdemann, in Jesus after 2000 Years (SCM Press, 2000), having dismissed most of the pieces on the board with a series of comments, ‘This pericope has no historical foundation’, concludes patronisingly, ‘I have come to the conclusion that Jesus is a sympathetic, original figure, a man of humour and wit at whom I sometimes chuckle. But in his interpretation of the law he sometimes becomes too serious for me. Finally in his confident dialogue with God, Jesus seems to me to be almost ridiculous, for here he makes the mistake of so many religious people: he sees himself at the centre of the world’ At the end of a 700-page book by a University Professor such a conclusion almost beggars belief.
A final example is EP Sanders, sometime professor in this university. In The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin, 1993) he lists 11 facts about the life of Jesus which he regards as ‘almost beyond dispute’, of which the central members are:

4. He called disciples.

5. He taught in the towns, villages & countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities).

6. He preached ‘the kingdom of God’

7. About the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover.

8. He created a disturbance in the Temple area.

Nothing about wonders or about Jesus’ self-consciousness. However Sanders’ outline of the death of Jesus gives sufficient orientation:

It is possible that, when Jesus drank his last cup of wine and predicted that he would drink it again in the kingdom, he thought that the kingdom would arrive immediately. After he had been on the cross for a few hours, he despaired, and cried out that he had been forsaken. This speculation is only one possible explanation. We do not know what he thought as he hung in agony on the cross. After a relatively short period of suffering he died, and some of his followers and sympathizers hastily buried him.2


My Chessboard
I finish by showing you my own chessboard.


  1. Criteria for Historicity. I have serious difficulty with those knights, who constantly zap pieces unexpectedly. What I mean is that squabbling about how to apply any set of criteria employed is so constant that the application of the criteria to individual sayings is subjective and capricious. The only criterion which I find serviceable is the criterion of double dissimilarity used by Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham and one time tutor of Worcester College: ‘when something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeoply subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting-point (though not the exact replica) of something in later Christianity’3. Incidentally, for those whom it interests, he maintains that this is the mainstay of the so-called Third Quest. The application of even (one might say ‘especially’) this criterion can be argued about.

I would therefore take very seriously a whole series of highly demanding, shocking, often abrasive sayings which just fit within Judaism, but would certainly have shocked the hearers, such as

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man...

Unless you become like children you cannot enter the K of G

If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out

Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.




  1. For primary evidence I would accept as reliable sayings of Jesus only those in Mark and those in both Matthew and Luke. (Technically Q-sayings. If you do not accept Q you may accept those parts of the Mt tradition which were acceptable also to Lk). I am happiest with the Markan sayings which pass Tom Wright’s double-dissimilarity test.




  1. It seems to me to stand out a mile that Jesus’ chief objective is to proclaim the Kingship, in the sense of the Sovereignty of God. He did not proclaim himself in the way which Jn portrays him doing. These are important later reflections on the nature of Jesus. Nor was he concerned about his titles, ‘Messiah’, ‘son of David’, ‘son of God’. These come together in the so-called Jewish trial scene, which is largely a composition of Mark, as Conzelmann says, ‘a compendium of Markan Christology’. I would say that he understands the Sovereignty of God principally in two ways:

    1. The renewed fulfilment of the Law. He has his own halakhoth (practical solution when two laws clash), which differ in several ways from those generally accepted. Mt encapsulates this in his thrice-repeated scriptural verse, ‘What I want is love not sacrifice’. It is also not far from the rabbinic sayings, ‘Regard for life overrules the Sabbath’ (b. Yoma 85b) and ‘The Sabbath is delivered to you, not you to the Sabbath’ (R. Simeon, late 2nd century). The devastating freedom with which he handled the sacred Law (e.g. on divorce, being stricter than Deuteronomy) bespeaks a consciousness of divine authority.

    2. The removal of sickness, alienation, fear, suffering. This is shown by his wonders, and particularly by his reply in Mt 11.2-6par to the messengers of John the Baptist (who had a different, more severe concept of the Reign of God), to whom he quoted Isaiah 35 or 61 in explanation of his actions. Whatever the detailed truth of these stories, they are testimony that people saw God at work in him.




  1. Josephus tells us in that part of the Testimonium Flavianum which is accepted by most scholars that Jesus was ‘a wise man’ (and this is fulfilled by the demanding and unexpected sayings quoted above) and a poih,thj evrgw/n parado,xwn. There was no concept of miracle in the Jewish world. This requires a concept of the laws of nature. Parado,xwn means ‘unexpected’, ‘wonderful’. This is the concept of the wonderful works of God, signs of God at work for the sake of his own, not necessarily against nature in the modern sense of the word. Jesus is not unlike the charismatic Galilean rabbis whose wonderworking has been documented by Vermes. I do not know exactly what went on in many of the wonder recounted in the gospel, for they are narrated in terms which bring out their meaning in scriptural terms. Whenever there is detailed fulfilment of scriptural texts (whose original meaning was different) I am very wary and on my guard. I think that many of the details of the Passion Narrative are spawned by the desire to see individual texts of scripture fulfilled.




  1. We know, from the additional criterion of Friend-&-Foe, that the scribes accepted that he drove out evil spirits (attributing it to the Prince of Evil Spirits). This is the result of the staggering impact of his extraordinary personality. This enabled him also to forgive sins. (I would not accept Vermes’ plea that the theological passive ‘Your sins are forgiven’ in Mk 2.9 means merely that God has forgiven the paralytic his sins, for the critical bystanders complain that he is being blasphemous, arrogating to himself a divine right). This again bespeaks a consciousness of divine authority. The ‘wonderful works’, after all, show that in some sense God was working within him.




  1. I do not think that Jesus had long-term plans for a Church or community. If he did have them, he did not communicate them to his disciples. His eyes were on the urgency of decision; the parables were Krisigleichnisse. One must attribute to Jesus at the very least a good deal of insight, and I would say prophetic knowledge, a special insight into the situation. He saw that his mission of establishing the sovereignty of God was reaching a climax and that in some sense it would be established by his following through his mission to the bloody end. This would be part of his consciousness that he had a special task from the Lord. ‘There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power’ (Mk 9.1) ‘I will not drink from the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the Kingdom’ (Mk 14.25)




  1. There is no sign that he worried about a gentile mission or planned for it. His single encounter with the Syro-Phoenician gentile was sufficient grounds to allow gentiles into the community of his followers, though it played no part in the admission of Cornelius as described in Acts




  1. We can say very little about Jesus’ consciousness. He called God his father in a way unparalleled (double-dissimilarity). He was conscious of the right to teach with authority and to produce his own halakhoth, to monkey with the sacred Law, which on the whole he observed. He frequently communed with God alone and at length. I don’t know what it feels like to a human being to be God, but our very limited experience of human, physical persons suggests one person talking to another as human beings do. This is no model for divine relationships. ‘Person’ is a very odd term when no physical principle of individuation is involved. I have known a few holy people, in whom I would say that somehow the divine is present. They have authority and it is simply frightening, comforting and awesome. I am reminded of Augustine’s inhorresco et inardesco or Goethe’s Das Schaudern ist des Menschens beste Teil.

The trouble about disputing with Geza is that I agree with most of what he says. How is it then that he is an agnostic while I am a Christian? Starting-point is The Religion of Jesus the Jew (SCM 1993), the last of his trilogy.


On the whole Jesus follows the Law, though he often has different halakhoth, i.e. different evaluations when it come to a conflict between two values, e.g.

  1. Mk 1.44 He tells cured leper to show himself to priest, as CD 13.5-7

  2. Sabbath-halakhoth in general follow b. Yoma 85b ‘Regard for life overrules the Sabbath’, but applied much more widely. In the same line as R. Simeon, late 2 cent, ‘The Sabbath is delivered to you, not you to the Sabbath’

  3. Mk 7.19 clearly not Jesus because of difficulties in Ga and Ac – he meant something different.

Sayings against family are not against Decalogue but conform to Jesus’ eschatological purpose, ‘as Ml 3.24’ however Mi 7.6 enmity within the family could be model for Jesus’ idea of qliyij.


V understands ‘Let the dead bury their dead’ as ‘let those who have no interest in the life offered by the Kgdom…’ This is not implausible, as the literal sense is ridiculous. It shows the difficulty of evaluating Jesus’ sayings and their authenticity.
The teaching on Qorban in Mk 7, though without close parallel in rabbinics, is simply eminently reasonable, and typical of Jesus’ halakhoth.
The mark of Jesus’ teaching is its eschatological severity. So the antitheses on hating brother and abolition of divorce. This is the same as his demand for ‘supererogation’ in abilition of talio and of oaths, and in willingness to go further than the mile.
Chapter on Jesus’ use of scripture highly dubious. I doubt whether most of them are from Jesus himself, e.g.

quotations in Mk 13 (but Mk 13 is of a different literary character, full of imperatives, many less kai.-starts, one single carefully framed discourse, each part being built on a Daniel-quotation),

quotations in Passion narrative,

quotation of Ho 6.6 three times in Mt obviously Mt’s interpretation,

Lk 4.16-30 obviously a scene constructed from Mk 6.1-6.
Jesus was a charismatic in Rudolf Otto’s sense – hence no need to prove from scripture – agree with Josephus so,foj paradoxw/n evrgw/n poih,thj
He proclaimed the Kgdom, but in what sense? Mt prolongs it to the Parousia. What of Mk 9.1, which Bultmann calls ‘a community formulation of consolation in view of the delay of the Parousia’ and Mk 14.25 (HST 121, 265). Why do they say this? Wasn’t Jesus wrong?
Conditions of entry: Eye of needle typical Jesus, Mk 10.23-25

Like a child, Mk 10.15

If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, Mk 9.47

Leave the dead…Q


When? No wine till it arrives (and wine is normal) Mk 14.25

If it is through the Spirit of God that I drive out devils, then be sure that the k of G has come upon you (Mt 12.28=Q)


Sanders (Jesus & Judaism, SCM 1985, p.155) questions whether these sayings will allow us to say that Jesus thought that the K was present in some extraordinary sense, in its full end-time power, and to find in this conception what distinguishes Jesus from all others. He suggests that ‘we could doubtless say the same things of John the Baptist and probably of Theudas and the Egyptian’
Jesus never calls God ‘King’, but Father. Father in Wicked Vinedressers

Mk 11.25 So that your Father in heaven may forgive you your trespasses

Plenty of instances in Mt – Sermon etc

Mk 13.32 is ‘a Jewish saying with a Christian ending’ (Bultmann HST 159)

Mk 14.36

Not Daddy


Simeon II said that the three pillars on which the world stood are Temple, Law and acts of mercy. Temple (says V) not so important for most Jews. Nomos never comes in Mk Most instances of nomos are in Paul, so result of controversy with Pharisaic Judaism.’ (p. 189)
Crossan: countercultural uneducated philosopher of folk wisdom, overturning any sort of hierarchy, family structures, religious systems, any brokered access to God – folk magic, a social revolutionary. Gp Thos as reliable as 4. By the age of Paul little known of historical figure of Jesus.
Meier uses criteria: embarrassment, discontinuity, multiple attestation, coherence, crtierion of Jesus’ rejection.
Wright: Jesus’ proclamation must make sense within its jewish context, but must also challenge that context. Israel went into exile because of her own folly and disobedience, and the return is result of fantastically generous love of God.


1 These titles represent only a tiny fraction of his works. In Who’s Who he lists among his recreations ‘correcting proofs’.

2 Sanders 1993, p. 274-5.

3 Jesus and the Victory of God (SPCK, 1996), p. 132.





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