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JESUS (d. 30 C.E.), whom Christianity sees as its founder and object of faith, was a Jew who lived toward the end of the Second Commonwealth period. The martyrdom of his brother James is narrated by Josephus (Ant. 20:200–3), but the passage in the same work (18:63–64) speaking about the life and death of Jesus was either rewritten by a Christian or represents a Christian interpolation. The first Roman authors to mention Jesus are Tacitus and Suetonius. The historicity of Jesus is proved by the very nature of the records in the New Testament, especially the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospels are records about the life of Jesus. John's Gospel is more a treatise reflecting the theology of its author than a biography of Jesus, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke present a reasonably faithful picture of Jesus as a Jew of his time. The picture of Jesus contained in them is not so much of a redeemer of mankind as of a Jewish miracle maker and preacher. The Jesus portrayed in these three Gospels is, therefore, the historical Jesus.

The Gospels

The precise date of the composition of the Gospels is not known, but all four were written before 100 C.E. and it is certain that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are interdependent. Scholars call these three the Synoptic Gospels because they can be written in parallel columns, such form being called synopsis. It is generally accepted that the main substance of the Synoptic Gospels comes from two sources: an old account of the life of Jesus which is reproduced by Mark, and a collection of Jesus' sayings used in conjuction with the old account by Matthew and Luke. Most scholars today identify the old account that lies behind Mark with the known Gospel of Mark, but a serious analysis, based especially upon the supposed Hebrew original, shows that Mark had entirely rewritten the material. It may be assumed, therefore, that the old account, and not the revision, was known to both Luke and Matthew. According to R. Lindsey (see bibliography), Matthew and Luke, besides drawing upon the sayings, also drew directly upon the old account; the editor of Mark used Luke for his version, and Matthew, besides using the old account, often drew also upon Mark. Lindsey's conclusions are also supported by other arguments.

Both of the chief sources of the Synoptic Gospels, the old account, and the collection of Jesus' sayings, were produced in the primitive Christian congregation in Jerusalem, and were translated into Greek from Aramaic or Hebrew. They contained the picture of Jesus as seen by the disciples who knew him. The present Gospels are redactions of these two sources, which were often changed as a result of ecclesiastical tendentiousness. This becomes especially clear in the description of Jesus' trial and crucifixion in which all Gospel writers to some degree exaggerate Jewish "guilt" and minimize Pilate's involvement. As the tension between the *Church and the Synagogue grew, Christians were not interested in stressing the fact that the founder of their faith was executed by a Roman magistrate. But even in the case of Jesus' trial, as in other instances, advance toward historical reality can be made by comparing the sources according to principles of literary criticism and in conjunction with the study of the Judaism of the time.

The Name, Birth, and Death Date of Jesus

Jesus is the common Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. Jesus' father, Joseph, his mother, Mary (in Heb. Miriam), and his brothers, James (in Heb., Jacob), Joses (Joseph), Judah, and Simon (Mark. 6:3) likewise bore very popular Hebrew names. Jesus also had sisters, but their number and names are unknown. Jesus Christ means "Jesus the Messiah" and according to Jewish belief, the Messiah was to be a descendant of David. Both Matthew (1:2–16) and Luke (3:23–38) provide a genealogy leading back to David, but the two genealogies agree only from Abraham down to David. Thus, it is evident that both genealogies were constructed to show Jesus' Davidic descent, because the early Christian community believed that he was the Messiah. Matthew and Luke set Jesus' birth in *Bethlehem, the city of David's birth. This motif is made comprehensible if it is assumed that many believed the Messiah would also be born in Bethlehem, an assumption clearly seen in John 7:41–42, which, telling of some who denied that Jesus is the Messiah, says: "Is the Christ (Messiah) to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" John therefore knew neither that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem nor that he was descended from David. The home of Jesus and his family was *Nazareth in Galilee and it is possible that he was born there.

The story of Jesus' birth from the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit without an earthly father exists in the two independent literary versions of Matthew and Luke. It is not to be found in Mark or John, who both begin their Gospel with Jesus' baptism by *John the Baptist. Jesus' virgin birth is not presupposed in other parts of the *New Testament. Apart from Matthew and Luke, the first to mention the virgin birth is Ignatius of Antiochia (d. 107). According to Luke's data, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist either in 27/28 or 28/29 C.E., when he was about the age of 30. On the evidence in the first three Gospels, the period between his baptism and crucifixion comprised no more than one year; although according to John it ran to two or even three years. It seems that on the point of the duration of Jesus' public ministry the Synoptic Gospels are to be trusted. Most probably, then, Jesus was baptized in 28/29 and died in the year 30 C.E.

Jesus' Family and Circle

Jesus's father, Joseph, was a carpenter in Nazareth and it is almost certain that he died before Jesus was baptized. All the Gospels state that there was a tension between Jesus and his family, although after Jesus' death his family overcame their disbelief and took an honorable place in the young Jewish-Christian community. Jesus' brother, James, became the head of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem and when he was murdered by a Sadducean high priest (62 C.E.) for the faith in his brother, he was succeeded by Simon, a cousin of Jesus. Grandsons of Jesus' brother, Judah, lived until the reign of Trajan and were leaders of Christian churches apparently in Galilee.

John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, was an important religious Jewish personality; he is recorded in Josephus (Ant. 18:116–9) as well as the New Testament. From Josephus it is seen that John's baptismal theology was identical with that of the *Essenes. According to the Gospels, in the moment of Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven proclaimed his election. When he left John the Baptist, Jesus did not return to Nazareth, but preached in the area northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Later, after his unsuccessful visit to his native Nazareth, he returned again to the district around *Capernaum, performed miraculous healings, and proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven. From his closest disciples he appointed 12 *apostles to be, at the Last Judgment, judges of the 12 tribes of Israel. After the death of Jesus the 12 apostles provided the leadership for the Jerusalem Church.

The Arrest of Jesus

Meanwhile, Herod Antipas, who had beheaded John the Baptist, also wanted to kill Jesus, whom he saw as the heir of the Baptist, but Jesus wanted to die in Jerusalem, which was reputed for "killing the prophets" (Luke 13:34). With Passover drawing near, Jesus decided to make a pilgrimage to the Temple at Jerusalem. There he openly predicted the future destruction of the Temple and the overthrow of the Temple hierarchy. According to the sources, he even tried to drive out the traders from the precincts of the Temple, saying, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a den of robbers" (Luke 19:45–6). These actions precipitated the catastrophe. The Sadducean priesthood, despised by everyone, found its one support in the Temple, and Jesus not only attacked them but even publicly predicted the destruction of their Temple. The first three Gospels indicate that Jesus' last supper was the paschal meal. When night had fallen he reclined at the table with the 12 apostles and said: "With all my heart I have longed to eat this paschal lamb with you before I die, for I tell you: I will never eat it again until I eat it anew in the Kingdom of God." He took a cup of wine, recited the benediction over it and said: "take it and share it among you; for I tell you, I will not again drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the Kingdom of God." He took bread, recited the blessing over it and said: "This is my body" (cf. Luke 22:15–19). Thus Jesus' Passover meal under the shadow of death became the origin of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist.

After the festive meal, Jesus left the city together with his disciples and went to the nearby Mount of Olives, to the garden of Gethsemane. There, although he had foreseen the danger of his death, he prayed for his life (Luke 22:39–46). One of the 12 apostles, Judas Iscariot, had already betrayed him from unknown motives. Judas had gone to the high priests and told them he would deliver Jesus to them and they had promised to give him money (Mark 14:10–11). The Temple guard, accompanied by Judas Iscariot, arrested Jesus and took him to the high priest.

The "Trial" and Crucifixion

The Gospels in their present form contain descriptions of the so-called "trial" of Jesus rewritten in a way making them improbable from the historical point of view. Nevertheless, a literary analysis of the sources is capable of revealing a closer approximation of the reality. In the first three Gospels, the Pharisees are not mentioned in connection with the trial, and in John, only once (18:3). Luke (22:66) and Matthew (26:59) explicitly mention the Sanhedrin once, and Mark mentions it twice (14:55; 15:1). In the whole of Luke – not just in his description of the Passion – there is no mention of the Sanhedrin's verdict against Jesus, and John records nothing about an assembly of the Sanhedrin before which Jesus appeared. Thus it seems very probable that no session of the Sanhedrin took place in the house of the high priest where Jesus was in custody and that the "chief priests and elders and scribes" who assembled there were members of the Temple committee (see also Luke 20:1): the elders were apparently the elders of the Temple and the scribes were the Temple secretaries. The deliverance of Jesus into the hands of the Romans was, it seems, the work of the Sadducean "high priests," who are often mentioned alone in the story. A man suspected of being a messianic pretender could be delivered to the Romans without a verdict of the Jewish high court. In addition, the high priests were interested in getting rid of Jesus, who had spoken against them and had predicted the destruction of the Temple. The Roman governor *Pontius Pilate ultimately had Jesus executed in the Roman way, by crucifixion. All the Gospels indicate that on the third day after the crucifixion Jesus' tomb was found empty. According to Mark an angel announced that Jesus had risen, and the other Gospels state that Jesus appeared before his believers after his death.

Jesus and the Jewish Background

The tension between the Church and the Synagogue often caused the Gospels, by means of new interpretations and later emendations, to evoke the impression that there was a necessary rift between Jesus and the Jewish way of life under the law. The first three Gospels, however, portray Jesus as a Jew who was faithful to the current practice of the law. On the matter of washing hands (Mark 7:5) and plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23ff.), it was the disciples, not the master, who were less strict in their observance of the law. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus did not heal by physical means on the Sabbath but only by words, healing through speech having always been permitted on the Sabbath, even when the illness was not dangerous. The Gospels provide sufficient evidence to the effect that Jesus did not oppose any prescription of the Written or Oral Mosaic Law, and that he even performed Jewish religious commandments. On all of the foregoing points the less historical John differs from the first three Gospels.

The wording of the Gospels exaggerates the clashes between Jesus and the *Pharisees. This becomes evident after an analysis of Jesus' sayings which are a more faithful preservation than are the tendentious descriptions of the situation in which the sayings were uttered. Jesus' major polemical sayings against the Pharisees describe them as hypocrites, an accusation occurring not only in the Essene Dead Sea Scrolls and, indirectly, in a saying of the Sadducean king, Alexander Yannai, but also in rabbinic literature, which is an expression of true Pharisaism. In general, Jesus' polemical sayings against the Pharisees were far meeker than the Essene attacks and not sharper than similar utterances in the talmudic sources. Jesus was sufficiently Pharisaic in general outlook to consider the Pharisees as true heirs and successors of Moses. Although Jesus would probably not have defined himself as a Pharisee, his beliefs, especially his moral beliefs, are similar to the Pharisaic school of Hillel which stresses the love of God and neighbor. Jesus, however, pushed this precept much further than did the Jews of his time and taught that a man must love even hisenemies. Others preached mutual love and blessing one's persecutors, but the command to love one's enemies is uniquely characteristic of Jesus and he is in fact the only one to utter this commandment in the whole of the New Testament.

The liberal Pharisaic school of Hillel was not unhappy to see gentiles become Jews. In contrast, the school of Shammai made conversion as difficult as possible because it had grave reservations about proselytism, most of which Jesus shared (Matt. 23:15). As a rule he even did not heal non-Jews. It should be noted that none of the rabbinical documents says that one should not heal a non-Jew.

In beliefs and way of life, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to the *Essenes. He accepted, however, a part of the Essene social outlook. Although Jesus was not a social revolutionary, the social implications of his message are stronger than that of the rabbis. Like the Essenes, Jesus also regarded all possessions as a threat to true piety and held poverty, humility, purity of heart, and simplicity to be the essential religious virtues. Jesus, as did the Essenes, had an awareness of and affection for the social outcast and the oppressed. The Essene author of the *Thanksgiving Scroll (18:14–15) promises salvation to the humble, to the oppressed in spirit, and to those who mourn, while Jesus in the first three beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount promises the Kingdom of Heaven to "the poor in spirit" to "those who mourn," and to "the meek" (Matt. 5:3–5). Moreover, Jesus' rule "Do not resist one who is evil" (Matt. 5:39) has clear parallels in the Essene Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jesus as the Messiah

The early Christian Church believed Jesus to be the expected *Messiah of Israel, and he is described as such in the New Testament; but whether Jesus thought himself to be the Messiah is by no means clear. Throughout the New Testament there are indications that Jesus had seen himself as a prophet. The Ebionites and Nazarenes, *Jewish Christian sects, both ranked Jesus among the prophets and stressed his prophetic role. Jesus himself apparently never used the word "Messiah," and always spoke of the "*Son of Man" in the third person, as though he himself were not identical with that person. The "Son of Man" originally appears in the Book of Daniel (7:9–14) as the man-like judge of the Last Days. Jesus based his account of the "Son of Man" on the original biblical description of a superhuman, heavenly sublimity, who, seated upon the throne of God, will judge the whole human race. In Jewish literature of the Second Commonwealth, the "Son of Man" is frequently identified with the Messiah and it is probable that Jesus used the phrase in this way too. In his own lifetime, it is certain that Jesus became accepted by many as the Messiah. The substance of many sayings make it obvious that Jesus did not always refer to the coming "Son of Man" in the third person simply to conceal his identity, but because Jesus actually did not believe himself to be the Messiah. Yet other apparently authentic sayings of Jesus can be understood only if it is assumed that Jesus thought himself to be the "Son of Man." Thus Jesus' understanding of himself as the Messiah was probably inconsistent, or at first he was waiting for the Messiah, but at the end, he held the conviction that he himself was the Messiah.

In the faith of the Church, Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Galilee, became the object of a drama which could bring salvation to pious spectators. This drama developed from two roots: Jesus' conception of himself as being uniquely near to his Heavenly Father, his message about the coming of the "Son of Man," and other Jewish mythical and messianic doctrines; the other root was Jesus' tragic death, interpreted in terms of Jewish concepts about the expiatory power of martyrdom. If, as Christians believe, the martyr was at the same time the Messiah, then his death has a cosmic importance. Through the teachings of Jesus, as well as through other channels, the Jewish moral message entered Christianity. Thus the historical Jesus has served as a bridge between Judaism and Christianity, as well as one of the causes for their separation.


A. Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus (19543); J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (1957) containing details and descriptions of Jewish scholarship on the subject of Jesus; M. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (1959); G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (1960); S. Pines, Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries of Christianity According to a New Source (1966); H. Cohn, The Death of Jesus (1971); D. Flusser, Jesus (1969); R.L. Lindsey, Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (1969); S. Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus (1965); S. Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (19644); S.G.F. Brandon, The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth (1968); J. Carmichael, The Death of Jesus (1962). IN TALMUD AND MIDRASH: M. Guedemann, Religionsgeschichtliche Studien (1876), 65–97; D. Chwolson, Das lezte Passahmahl Christi (1892), 85–125; H. Laible, Jesus Christus im Thalmud (19002); S. Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach juedischen Quellen (1902), 181–94; R.T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903); H.L. Strack, Jesus, die Haeretiker unddie Christen… (1910); Z.P. Chajes in: Ha-Goren, 4 (1923), 33–37; Kaminetzki, in: Ha-Tekufah, 18 (1923), 509–15; Guttmann, in: MGWJ, 75 (1931), 250–57; J.Z. Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays (1951), 473–570; E.E. Urbach, in: Tarbiz, 25 (1956), 272–89; idem, Ḥazal, Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Flusser, Jesus (1969); G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (1973); I. Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence (1984); J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991); J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992); E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993); G. Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus (2000); T. Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (2001); J.D. Crossan and J.L. Reed, Excavating Jesus (2001); J. Efron, The Origins of Christianity and Apocalyptism (2004).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.