What can we know about Jesus?

May 3, 2013A boy kisses an icon of Christ as he prays during Good Friday at the St. Sava temple … Continued

May 3, 2013A boy kisses an icon of Christ as he prays during Good Friday at the St. Sava temple in Belgrade, Serbia.Marko Djurica / Reuters

It is a miracle that we know anything at all about the man called Jesus of Nazareth. The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus’ time—so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of caricature among the Roman elite. In a farcical passage about just such a figure, the Greek philosopher Celsus imagines a Jewish holy man roaming the Galilean countryside, shouting to no one in particular: “I am God, or the servant of God, or a divine spirit. But I am coming, for the world is already in the throes of destruction. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven.”

The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called “false messiahs” we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as “The Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 b.c.e., the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, called simply “The Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome—an indication that the authorities, sensing the apocalyptic fever in the air, had become extremely sensitive to any hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba—all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were killed for doing so. Add to this list the Essene sect, some of whose members lived in seclusion atop the dry plateau of Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea; the first-century Jewish revolutionary party known as the Zealots, who helped launched a bloody war against Rome; and the fearsome bandit-assassins whom the Romans dubbed the Sicarii (the Daggermen), and the picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an era awash in messianic energy.

It is difficult to place Jesus of Nazareth squarely within any of the known religiopolitical movements of his time. He was a man of profound contradictions, one day preaching a message of racial exclusion (“I was sent solely to the lost sheep of Israel”; Matthew 15:24), the next, of benevolent universalism (“Go and make disciples of all nations”; Matthew 28:19); sometimes calling for unconditional peace (“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God”; Matthew 5:9), sometimes promoting violence and conflict (“If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one”; Luke 22:36).

The problem with pinning down the historical Jesus is that, outside of the New Testament, there is almost no trace of the man who would so permanently alter the course of human history. The earliest and most reliable nonbiblical reference to Jesus comes from the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (d. 100 c.e.). In a brief throwaway passage in the Antiquities, Josephus writes of a fiendish Jewish high priest named Ananus who, after the death of the Roman governor Festus, unlawfully condemned a certain “James, the brother of Jesus, the one they call messiah,” to stoning for transgression of the law. The passage moves on to relate what happened to Ananus after the new governor, Albinus, finally arrived in Jerusalem.

Fleeting and dismissive as this allusion may be (the phrase “the one they call messiah” is clearly meant to express derision), it nevertheless contains enormous significance for those searching for any sign of the historical Jesus. In a society without surnames, a common name like James required a specific appellation—a place of birth or a father’s name—to distinguish it from all the other men named James roaming around Palestine (hence, Jesus of Nazareth). In this case, James’ appellative was provided by his fraternal connection to someone with whom Josephus assumes his audience would be familiar. The passage proves not only that “Jesus, the one they call messiah” probably existed, but that by the year 94 c.e., when the Antiquities was written, he was widely recognized as the founder of a new and enduring movement.

It is that movement, not its founder, that receives the attention of second-century historians like Tacitus (d. 118) and Pliny the Younger (d. 113), both of whom mention Jesus of Nazareth but reveal little about him, save for his arrest and execution—an important historical note, but one that sheds little light on the details of Jesus’ life. We are therefore left with whatever information can be gleaned from the New Testament.

The first written testimony we have about Jesus of Nazareth comes from the epistles of Paul, an early follower of Jesus who died sometime around 66 c.e. (Paul’s first epistle, 1 Thessalonians, can be dated between 48 and 50 c.e., some two decades after Jesus’ death). The trouble with Paul, however, is that he displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus. Only three scenes from Jesus’ life are ever mentioned in his epistles: the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23 26), the crucifixion (1 Corinthians 2:2), and, most crucially for Paul, the resurrection, without which, he claims, “our preaching is empty and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul may be an excellent source for those interested in the early formation of Christianity, but he is a poor guide for uncovering the historical Jesus.

Then there are the gospels, which present their own set of problems. After all, the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’ life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith written many years after the events they describe. Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man.

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century c.e.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so. By themselves these two facts cannot provide a complete portrait of the life of a man who lived 2,000 years ago. But when combined with all we know about the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived—and thanks to the Romans, we know a great deal—these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels. Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from this historical exercise—a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine—bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.

Consider this: Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition. The plaque the Romans placed above Jesus’ head as he writhed in pain—”King of the Jews”—was called a titulus and, despite common perception, was not meant to be sarcastic. Every criminal who hung on a cross received a plaque declaring the specific crime for which he was being executed. Jesus’ crime, in the eyes of Rome, was striving for kingly rule (i.e. sedition), the same crime for which nearly every other messianic aspirant of the time was killed. Nor did Jesus die alone. The gospels claim that on either side of Jesus hung men who in Greek are called lestai, a word often rendered into English as “thieves” but that actually means “bandits” and was the most common Roman designation for an insurrectionist or rebel.

Three rebels on a hill covered in crosses, each cross bearing the racked and bloodied body of a man who dared defy the will of Rome. That image alone should cast doubt upon the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a man of unconditional peace almost wholly insulated from the political upheavals of his time. The notion that the leader of a popular messianic movement calling for the imposition of the “Kingdom of God”—a term that would have been understood by Jew and gentile alike as implying revolt against Rome—could have remained uninvolved in the revolutionary fervor that had gripped nearly every Jew in Judea is simply ridiculous.

Why would the gospel writers go to such lengths to temper the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message and movement? To answer this question we must first recognize that almost every gospel story written about the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 c.e. In that year, a band of Jewish rebels, spurred by their zeal for God, roused their fellow Jews in revolt. Miraculously, the rebels managed to liberate the Holy Land from the Roman occupation. For four glorious years, the city of God was once again under Jewish control. Then, in 70 c.e., the Romans returned. After a brief siege of Jerusalem, the soldiers breached the city walls and unleashed an orgy of violence upon its residents. They butchered everyone in their path, heaping corpses on the Temple Mount. A river of blood flowed down the cobblestone streets. When the massacre was complete, the soldiers set fire to the Temple of God. The fires spread beyond the Temple, engulfing Jerusalem’s meadows, the farms, the olive trees. Everything burned. So complete was the devastation wrought upon the holy city that Josephus writes there was nothing left to prove Jerusalem had ever been inhabited. Tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. The rest were marched out of the city in chains.

The spiritual trauma faced by the Jews in the wake of that catastrophic event is hard to imagine. Exiled from the land promised them by God, forced to live as outcasts among the pagans of the Roman Empire, the rabbis of the second century gradually and deliberately divorced Judaism from the radical messianic nationalism that had launched the ill-fated war with Rome. The Torah replaced the Temple in the center of Jewish life, and rabbinic Judaism emerged.

The Christians, too, felt the need to distance themselves from the revolutionary zeal that had led to the sacking of Jerusalem, not only because it allowed the early church to ward off the wrath of a deeply vengeful Rome, but also because, with the Jewish religion having become pariah, the Romans had become the primary target of the church’s evangelism. Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. That was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and in fact did accept three centuries later when the Roman emperor Flavius Theodosius (d. 395) made the itinerant Jewish preacher’s movement the official religion of the state, and what we now recognize as orthodox Christianity was born.

I have been studying the life and time of Jesus of Nazareth for much of the last twenty years in an attempt to uncover, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, 2,000 years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. The result of my two decades of academic research is my latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

There are those who consider such an endeavor to be a waste of time, believing the Jesus of history to be irrevocably lost and incapable of recovery. But I believe that if we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history. Indeed, I am convinced that if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived—an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism—then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.

The Jesus that is uncovered in the process may not be the Jesus we expect; he certainly will not be the Jesus that most modern Christians would recognize. But in the end, he is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.

Everything else is a matter of faith.

Excerpted from
ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Reza Aslan Copyright 2013 by Reza Aslan. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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  • Abey

    Not only Jesus depicted by Arslan is different than the one in the Gospels, but very unlike the one described by Arslan’s holy book, the Quran. In that book Jesus is described as “of the spirit of Allah and His prophet”, who healed the lepers and raised the dead. A zealot is incapable of such deeds. Arslan time would be better served studying the historical Mohammad and his “miracle”, the Quran.

  • tony55398

    Aslan is trying to justify a revolution, since in his mind Jesus did and Jesus is the precursor to Mohammad, the great revolutionist, therefore the use of violence is justified as well, but a revolution against whom? America, the new Roman Empire, or anyone who stands in the way of Islam?

  • itsthedax

    If you believe that a particular person existed at a particular place and time, then it makes sense to examine his life in the context of history. The fact is that Judea was in a pretty constant state of political upheaval and rebellion during the whole first century of Roman occupation. Anyone who had a public voice would have been speaking in the political context of independence for the region.

  • orpheus2004

    Aslan is an opportunist. When Islam was a hot topic, he capitalized on his Muslim cultural heritage and attempted to speak as an authority from within. Now, he is doing the same thing with this book. In his interviews, he is quick to mention how his mother and wife are Christian, as if to give him both credibility to be an “expert” and immunity from criticism by Christians. It is ultimately up to the consumers if they want to fall prey to his telegenic presence on television and highly readable prose as being sufficient to buy this book and accept it as, pardon the pun, gospel. But for what it’s worth, there are better scholars, better writers and more credible voices out there for those willing to put in the necessary intellectual heavy lifting, rather than going for the “Top 40” version of religious history.

  • warlock

    Christianity and Islam are both at their best when they look like Buddhism.
    If you want to ‘see’ Jesus, look at the Dalai Lama.

  • Archy Bunka

    This man is truthful in what he says, that there is very little known of Christ outside the New Testament. He also states:

    “But I believe that if we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.”

    Well, that is opinion. To state that some Jews were revolutionaries, and therefore, Christ was one as well, is thin. However, Mr. Aslan has covered himself, historically, and this book may very well be interested reading.

    Let’s talk FOX. First of all, what qualifies Lauren Green to be “Journalist of Religion” ? She is a musician. Most experts in some particular field have a piece of paper, or, some skill to prove it. The only thing Green’s interview proved is how utterly biased and, for want of a better word, stupid, FOX News is. Green was completely incapable of grasping the fact that this man is a religious scholar, who has attempted to write a history of Christ’s life, and admits quite openly it is very difficult to do. With so few primary sources available, Mr. Aslan has delved into the pool of historical analogy. His analogy (I have not read the book) seems to be more of a theory, with all kinds of interesting historical tidbits interwoven.

    Lauren Green may well be shocked that scholars have been writing about religion for quite sometime now. Although it is painfully obvious that the FOX teams expert on religion hasn’t read any of them.

    Green’s interview, quickly devolved into a typically, hostile FOX interview. Completely lacking in knowledge of the subject matter and trying to make the man look bad even though he isn’t even a democrat.


    Strange, isn’t it in retrospect, that the Romans apparently didn’t consider Jesus worthy of mention anywhere in their records.


    I tried to view the PBS special on Buddhism last week but had to quit after an hour and a half. Too much pretentiousness and navel-gazing for too long

  • DocinDC

    Fascinating, likely not without motive, but I will buy the book.

  • DocinDC

    Please name 3 or 4 of them who are attempting to directly address this topic–the historical Jesus.

  • DocinDC

    The underlying idea thus far seems to be that a philosophy of peace was an accomodation to the might and slaughter of the state–peace not arrived at as a recommended philosophy in and of itself, but as a kowtowing to power–whereas the authentic, original philosophy was one of fiery nationalism and revolutionary fervor.

    There are those, throughout more recent history, that have come to similar conclusions.

    The results have not been good.

  • JTati

    What about the show?

  • Sojouner

    I think it is impossible to separate what the author calls the ‘historical Jesus’ from the one portrayed in the Gospels and epistles. First, why would anyone want to do that? As the article above accomplishes, it partitions Jesus into segments which is a disservice to him. And the author of the article is discounting eye witness Gospel writers such as John, Matthew and even Mark when stating there is little historical evidence available. Historical, geographical and cultural context is very important to understanding Jesus, but so are His claims to be the Son of God. And lets not forget that one Gospel event called the ressurection which is the foundation of Christianity. Thanks Reza for the historical context but that context alone is not enough. And as a historian, you should know better than to take scriptures out of context, like you did in this article, to make some points.

  • postaddict2

    It seems to me the answer to your first question is “to separate the historical from the mythological Jesus”. As for the former, where do you find evidence that the writers of John, Matthew or Mark were “eye witness” observers ? These narratives were put in print generations after the death of the historical Jesus, and they show a wide interpretation of meaning of the person of Jesus. There is a reason for instance, that Mark has no nativity narrative. His theology – Christology if you will, is adoptionistic (his Christology was very different from that of John… and a nativity event – born the son of god etc. was not needed) . John paints a totally different Jesus. In any case, they were looking back a good bit of time.

  • Archy Bunka

    Why should another renegade who claimed divine guidance be mentioned by the Romans?

  • JTati

    “why would anyone want to do that?”

    Why not?

  • snapfinger

    I have not read the book, but what is presented here is not a radical departure from what I learned in a college New Testament class in the early 1990s. It was an academic class, as opposed to a religious class, and we spent a day discussing the historical context of Jesus’ life and his relation to the revolutionary “Sons of Thunder”. It was really fascinating. My professor’s theory was that as the new religion became more widely accepted and early followers became prosperous family men/women, they tampered the violent language and highlighted the peace. So the time period for the early gospel writers (about 100 ce) was very different and less revolutionary from the time period Jesus lived.

  • smitisan

    Jesus was a Jew, so according to FOX Christians have no business writing about him.

  • smitisan

    All I know is that there’s this great story that ends with a man forgiving his torturers even as they kill him. It points to a way of life worthy of emulation. Socrates forgave his poisoners, Krishna forgave the hunter, the Buddha told his disciples not to hold anything against the fellow who fed him the mushrooms. If it worked for them, who am I to argue?

  • leibowde84

    The Gospels were written anonymously decades after the death of Jesus. Sure, it is vaguely possible that the Gospels were written by the men for which they were named, but it is not bloody likely. And, even if they were, it is illogical to assume they be historically accurate so long after the life they portrayed actually ended. So, I would ask you to do some secular research into who actually wrote the Gospels. Look into the claims of St. Paul, who never once met Jesus, but, instead, merely claimed to have “seen him in a vision” on the road to Damascus.

    I love this author. Although, like any other offer, he is probably incorrect in his assumptions at some times, but it is always beneficial to look at religious figures from unbiased sources. He has no reason to spread lies about the life of Jesus … and he is offering his educated opinion.

    Finally, it is absolutely necessary to separate the historical Jeus from the image we get from the Bible, as that image has been found, for countless reasons, to be far from accurate. Any secular historian will tell you there is a huge difference between the religion of Jesus and the religion that was created in his name.

  • leibowde84

    It’s always peculiar to me that people assume that the Gospels were written by the men for which they were named. They were chosen from a collection of over 30 gospels, written and followed by various Christian communities all over the Roman Empire and beyond. To think that they are not only historically accurate, but written by the deciples and original followers of Jesus is pretty far fetched. But, to assume that they are this way without doing your own historical exploration is out-right silly.

  • VirginiaJim

    There are no ancient histories (which the Gospels and the Book of Acts assert themselves to be) where the physical copies are as numerous, geographically widespread, and as close to the date of the events that they record as the New Testament documents.

    Some of the New Testament was obviously meant to be a historical account. For example, the Gospel of Luke begins “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

    The “Search for the Historic Jesus” academic club start with the assumption of Jesus not being who He and the Apostles stated Him to be and use a historical standard far stricter than for other historical figures, such as Julius Ceasar or Plato.

    That Christians struggle with the high standards that Jesus taught or the mysteries that He revealed is not surprising given our sinful nature (plenty of evidence of that in the news) and the high standard of Holiness and righteousness Jesus pointed us to. That is why the Father extended grace and mercy through the work of Jesus the Christ.

  • VirginiaJim

    No ancient book is close to the New Testament (NT) in either number or early dating of the copies. The average secular work of antiquity exists in only a few manuscripts; the NT boasts 24K+.

    Some NT books are histories, e.g., Luke begins “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

    The “Search for Historic Jesus” club assumes Jesus is not God and that the Biblical writers were dishonest or biased then use an evidence standard much stricter than used for other ancient historical figures, such as Julius Caesar or Plato. Extended academic exercises like this are destructive to faith and don’t give concrete answers as the assumptions shape the conclusions.

    That’s why Apostle Paul told Timothy “have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2Tim 2:23) and warned “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col 2:8).

    Sadly, most articles/comments in the “On Faith” section seem intended to attack the moral authority of Jesus rather than discuss faith and its application to public life.

    That we struggle with what Jesus taught is not surprising given our sinful nature and the high standard of righteousness Jesus commanded. Our inability to become holy on their own is why the Father extended grace and mercy through the work of His Son, Jesus the Christ which we gain by faith.

    Want to find the “historic” Jesus? Confess & turn from your sins, then ask Him into your life. He will come as the NT promises.

  • VirginiaJim

    References for the last part of my comment.

    James 4:8 – Come near to God, and he will come near to you.

    Matthew 11:28 – Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.

    Psalm 73:28 – But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Really, you’re just confirming the last sentence of the article….Everything else is a matter of faith.

    Sorry I don’t want any parts of this evil / immoral god and his zombie kid.

  • PhillyJimi1

    If I say I am from Philly and more or less a normal 47 year old. I am 5’10” and 190 lbs. That isn’t an extraordinary claim. If I said I am the Son of god, while also being god, a perfect being, I walked on water and oh yea I am also a zombie now the game changes. That is an extraordinary claim it requires more evidence.

    While I could could be lying about my age, height and weight as long as I am not saying I am 12′ tall, 400 years old and 12 lbs it doesn’t matter if I am lying or not. If you said you’re from the planet Venus and I need to have blind faith that your claim is true. Sorry that doesn’t work.

  • BellsBlu2

    The words “Arrested development” come to mind……..

  • PhillyJimi1

    Archy Bunka – If it this was true….

    Matthew 27:52-53 “and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”

    I would think the Romans would of mentioned it. It would of been new worthy. Unless it is just a tall tale told by Christians to trying to sell Jesus to converts.


    Well said! There is no new revelation where I come from!


    It a start-keep reading and pray for the Holy spirit to lead you to God of the Bible/the truth! There’s room for one more!


    Wow, more followers of Jesus-love it! I haven’t read the Post for months- thank you! It’s much brighter in this room about now!


    India worships rats that eat 30% of the crops and cattle walk past millions of starving children! Loving God and loving others in not happening there! There’s lot’s of the world religions there however and it always leads to anarchy when we rely on self and man made idols vs God!

  • smitisan

    Oh, so you think I need more than this? Sorry, but I consider that the attitude of ingratitude, and I’m in the middle of the Mahabharata right now.

  • xexon

    Considering there is no hard evidence that Jesus ever existed, it’s almost a moot point to discuss anything…

    Christianity is held together by belief and good intentions. And the ability to fleece money out of a billion followers.

    Someday, it’s all going to fall apart. Because you are of the earth and not the spirit.


  • ZZimian

    “Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. ”

    I’m not buying it.

    You’ve got the Jesus protrayed by the gospels, why do you need to make up an imaginary make-believe alternative-reality Jesus?

    What’s the point of that?

    I’m not religious myself, so I have no dog in this fight, I’m just wondering what the purpose of that is?