• Both introduction and source of new insights
Renowned New Testament scholar James Dunn investigates what is known about the historical
Jesus and the reasons for his enormous impactthen and now.
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Who was Jesus? What a good question. It's a good question because of Jesus' reputation. For nearly two millennia Christians have regarded him as God's Son. That is, not just as a son of God, as millions of Christians and others might think of themselves as sons (or daughters) of God. One of the greatest of the earliest Christians, Paul, encouraged his fellow Christians to think of themselves in that way. But Paul is clear that the relationship thus expressed is not ours by nature. He refers to it as a relationship which has come about by adoption (Romans 8.15). The implication is clear. Jesus' sonship was different from that of Christians. As a natural son is different from an adopted son, so, in his relationship with God, Jesus is different from Christians in general.
If Paul, the author of the letter to Rome, probably written in the mid-50s of the first century, is any guide, this conviction about Jesus was already a defining mark of the first Christians. Already, within 30 years of Jesus' death, he was regarded as God's son in a unique sense by the first generation of Christians. Not just as a great leader, cruelly put to death by the Romans. And not just as a messenger who brought a message from God, like the prophets of old. But as unique among human beings. As more closely related to God than earlier saints and prophets. How could this be so? How did this conviction about Jesus come about? Who was Jesus?
To answer these questions satisfactorily we have to know what sources are available to us. The obvious answer is: the Gospels which make up the first four books of the New Testament. The first three, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are very similar. They are usually called the Synoptic Gospels, because they can be 'seen together'. Indeed, they can be set down in three parallel columns, where the degree of overlap becomes immediately evident. The strong majority view is that of these three, Mark is the earliest, and that it served as a primary source for Matthew and Luke.
Specialists in the subject are equally confident that Matthew and Luke were able to use another source, a collection of Jesus' teachings. This latter is usually known as Q, denoting the German word for 'source' (Quelle). The size of Q is unclear, since traditions about Jesus and his teaching were no doubt being variously used and circulated. In fact, much of the Q material is evident from the word-for-word agreement between Matthew and Luke. But other shared tradition is quite different in detail, suggesting that Matthew and Luke drew it from different sources.
The principal reason why Mark is regarded as the first of the three New Testament Gospels is simple. It is much more likely, for example, that Matthew added all his teaching material (drawn chiefly from Q) to Mark's briefer account, than that Mark chose to omit so much of the teaching contained in Matthew. Matthew, indeed, seems to have absorbed almost all of Mark. And since Matthew was greatly prized and much used in the second century it is hard to identify distinctive use of Mark's Gospel during that period.
The general view is that Mark was written a little before or a little after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and that Matthew and Luke were written sometime in the following two decades. The written Q must have been earlier than Matthew and Luke. But, interestingly, the written Q was not preserved. This may be simply because it was totally used by Matthew and Luke, but probably also because it did not take the form of a 'Gospel' in the sense given to that word by Paul and Mark – that is, as an account of Jesus' ministry climaxing in his death and resurrection.
The date of Jesus' death is debated but most settle on AD 30 as the most likely. If so, it means that there was a gap of about 40 years between his ministry and Mark's account. During that time, as can be easily imagined, there must have been an extensive and diverse oral tradition being passed among the spreading churches of earliest Christianity, recalling and narrating Jesus' teaching and ministry. The significance of our being able to set out the first three Gospels in parallel is, not least, that we can clearly see that they were drawing on very similar traditions about Jesus. 'The same, yet different' well describes the Synoptic tradition. The important corollary is that we can gain a very clear picture of Jesus, even when differently portrayed by the first three Evangelists.
This ties in neatly with the early tradition that Mark had been a close companion of Peter (1 Peter 5.13), and the slightly later note of Papias that Mark had acted as Peter's 'interpreter/translator' and had recorded Peter's recollections. Matthew, of course, was one of Jesus' twelve disciples. As a tax collector (Matthew 9.9) he was one of a small minority who could read and write. And as the 'I' passages in Acts indicate, the author of Luke and Acts was a close companion of Paul (also Colossians 4.14). So, in each case, we can be confident that the first three Gospels draw on direct memories of the first generation of Jesus' disciples.
The fourth Gospel in the New Testament is different. The source of its recollections may well be another of Jesus' disciples. But there was more than one 'John' in earliest Christianity, and the tradition is unclear at this point. More important is the fact that John's Gospel was evidently doing something different from the other New Testament Gospels. In particular, the concise teaching of the Synoptics, with many parables, is replaced by lengthy dialogues and disputes with Pharisees, in which Jesus makes amazingly bold 'I am' claims. For example, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life' (John 14.6). At the same time, a closer examination soon makes clear that most of the dialogues are rooted in the sort of sayings which the Synoptic Evangelists recorded.
The most obvious inference to be drawn is that John was not trying simply to record what Jesus said and did (like the Synoptics). His goal was rather to reflect on and draw out the significance of Jesus for a much wider audience. Thus, for example, the great bread of life discourse in John 6 reads like an extensive reflection on Jesus' words at the Last Supper with his disciples: 'This is my body'; 'This is my blood' (Mark 14.22, 24). And in John 10, Jesus' elaborated claim to be the good shepherd is most simply explained as growing out of Jesus' use of the imagery of sheep (as in Matthew 18.2–3). John gives the impression of being as much concerned to reach out to the future and not just to recall the past.
What of other Gospels? The Gospel of Thomas, only discovered in 1945 – 6, has roused much speculation and controversy. And it certainly contains what may best be described as Synoptic-like material. But added to that, and clearly intended as the 'good news', is an understanding of the human condition which is best described as 'Gnostic'. The Gnostic gospel worked from a fundamental distinction of flesh and spirit, which is quite different from the teaching of Jesus and the first Christians. More striking still, the Gospel of Thomas has no place for Jesus' death and resurrection. And yet it was precisely the focus on Jesus' death and resurrection which Paul enshrined in the word 'gospel'. And it was Mark who extended this use to an account of Jesus' ministry, climaxing in his death and resurrection. If the New Testament determines what the 'gospel' is, then the four New Testament Evangelists equally determine what a 'Gospel' is.
Son of Mary
Jesus has been a controversial figure for most of the last 2,000 years. Some have even doubted that he ever existed. An easy way to dismiss the central claims of Christianity is to deny that there ever was a historical figure called Jesus. But there is more than a hint of desperation in the promotion of such a view. For Jesus is referred to by Jewish and Roman historians writing of the period with no hint that his existence was questioned by any. His brother James was an important and well-known figure in the early decades of Christianity. There are features of his ministry, for example, that he regularly taught by telling parables, which can hardly be explained as derived from the early church, since no one else was known as such a parabolist. And the earliest written references to his death (and resurrection) can be traced back to within two or three years of that event. So, by far the most obvious reading of the historical data is that there was indeed a man called Jesus who existed in the early decades of the first century.
If we begin at the usual place in writing a biography, or telling the story of an individual, we can say straightforwardly: he was the son of Mary. The birth narratives, only in two of the four New Testament Gospels (Matthew and Luke), may seem rather contrived. And the portrayal of a virgin mother giving birth would certainly raise eyebrows, then as now. But that some one called Mary was his mother is confirmed by other references apart from the birth narratives. So we can take this as one of the firmest facts that we know about Jesus. There are also clear recollections that he had brothers – James, Joses/Joseph, Judas and Simon – and sisters too (Mark 6.3).
Where Jesus was born is more open to question. Of course, Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, has been acclaimed as the birthplace of Jesus from earliest times, as attested by the traditions recounted in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. But there are serious historical questions regarding these traditions. In particular, there is no supporting evidence that the Emperor Augustus decreed a universal census throughout the Roman Empire. So, no obvious reason either for Joseph to have taken his pregnant wife from Galilee to Bethlehem, as Luke narrates (Luke 2.1–5). One cannot but wonder whether the primary root of the story lies in the prophecy of Micah 5.2, that from Bethlehem would come forth 'one who is to rule in Israel'.
The principal clue as to Jesus' date of birth is that it happened 'in the time of king Herod' (Matthew 2.1; Luke 1.5). That will be Herod the Great, who ruled over Judea as a client king of the Roman superpower from 30 to 4 BC. The attribution of 'the slaughter of the innocents' to Herod (Matthew 2.16 –18) is otherwise unattested, though it is consistent with his known character. Herod's death (4 BC) presumably means that Jesus' birth can be dated no later than that date.
Jesus of Nazareth
Whatever we make of the birth narratives, we can be quite confident that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, and was known simply as 'Jesus of Nazareth'. That is how he is referred to from the first, according to the Gospels (e.g. Mark 1.24; John 18.5, 7). And that is how he continued to be identified in the earliest preaching in Acts (e.g. Acts 2.22). Indeed, according to Acts 22.8, it was how Jesus identified himself in the encounter which converted Saul/ Paul on the road to Damascus. At that time Nazareth was a small and insignificant village in the south of Galilee. It is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. So there is no reason why Jesus should have been linked with it – that is, no reason other than that was where he was brought up.
The intriguing question of his early life is only heightened by the story of the family's visit to Jerusalem for the Passover festival (Luke 2.41–51). In this story the 12year-old Jesus is depicted as 'sitting among the teachers' in the Temple, listening to them and asking them questions – as he had been, apparently, for more than three days (2.46). It is difficult to discern whether the story is based on a clear reminiscence, or is a precursor of the fanciful tales told about Jesus in the late second century Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
Baptized by John
The story of Jesus, however, really begins where the earliest Gospel, Mark, begins – with his being baptized by John the Baptist. Luke tells us that this happened when Jesus was about 30 years old (Luke 3.23), so about 26 CE.
That all four Gospels begin their account of Jesus' ministry with his encounter with John is one of the most striking features of these early reminiscences regarding Jesus. What is most striking is not what John declares about Jesus: that as he (John) baptized with water, so Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (and with fire) (Mark 1.8). It is rather the fact that Jesus is recalled as presenting himself to John to be baptized with 'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins' (Mark 1.4; Luke 3.3). Both Mark and Matthew note that those who came forward for baptism were baptized 'confessing their sins' (Matthew 3.6; Mark 1.5). Matthew at least, however, was conscious of questions being raised about Jesus accepting a baptism of repentance. So he inserts the additional narrative that the Baptist objected to the idea of Jesus being baptized by him, to which Jesus responds that it was nonetheless fitting thus 'to fulfil all righteousness' (Matthew 3.14 –15). The implication presumably is that Jesus saw his baptism as expressing his solidarity with baptized sinners.
Probably implied also is that baptism in water was understood by the first followers of Jesus as the necessary preliminary to or anticipation of the much more desirable baptism in the Spirit. This indeed is what Jesus himself experienced when he emerged from the water of baptism (Mark 1.10 –11) and could not unfairly be regarded as in line with what the Baptist had predicted. The relation of the two baptisms (water and Spirit) remains one of the most unclear and indeed contested issues in the history of Christianity.
What followed from Jesus' baptism is also somewhat confused and confusing. The first three (Synoptic) Gospels all recount Jesus immediately being subjected to temptation in the wilderness for 40 days – Matthew and Luke with some detail (Matthew 4.1–11; Luke 4.1–13). But not the Fourth Gospel. Thereafter Matthew and Mark report that Jesus went (back) to Galilee, 'after John [the Baptist] was arrested' (Mark 1.14; Matthew 4.12). The Fourth Evangelist, however, has Jesus moving back and forward from Judea to Galilee and again to Judea (John 1.43, 2.13). During this period the Baptist was still ministering, and Jesus' disciples are recalled as also baptizing (3.22), though John adds, Jesus himself did not baptize (4.2). This would seem to recall an early period when Jesus modelled his own ministry to some extent on the Baptist's, and would probably explain why the other Evangelists ignored this period. The implication is probably that Jesus' distinctive ministry only began when he had left the near company of the Baptist and began his own mission in his home territory. Does that also imply that Jesus did not gain a clear idea of what his mission should be, as distinct from that of the Baptist, for some time following his baptism?
Ministry in Galilee
It should probably occasion no surprise that in giving their account of Jesus, Matthew, Mark and Luke focused their attention on his ministry in Galilee, and held back his going south to Jerusalem to serve as the climax of his mission. Why they did so is hardly clear. But it would appear that the Fourth Evangelist was able to pull out (and elaborate) various reminiscences of Jesus in Judea/Jerusalem prior to his final week which the other Evangelists had ignored, for whatever reason. In contrast, after the opening chapters, John limits his record of Jesus' ministry in Galilee to his account of the feeding of the 5,000 (6.1–14), typically with an extensive sequence of teaching attached (6.25–65). The fact that the two accounts of Jesus' mission (Synoptic and Johannine) are so different – the former full of parables and epigrammatic sayings, the latter containing extensive discourses and discussions – suggests, as already noted, that the Synoptic accounts well represent Jesus' teaching style in Galilee, whereas the Fourth Gospel's account is the product of some lengthy reflection on Jesus, and on the significance of what he said and did.
According to the Synoptic accounts Jesus made his base in Capernaum, on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee. His first disciples were Galilean fishermen, the brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John (Mark 1.16 –20), and his mission was mainly round that large lake. Many of his parables and the images used in his teaching reflect these settings. Most of the healings and exorcisms attributed to him took place in this region. He is also recorded as making occasional visits to the region of Tyre, north-west of Galilee (7.24), and to Decapolis, the eastern side of the river Jordan (5.20; 7.31). But Galilee and its lake was evidently the principal focus of his mission. Was this a deliberate way of his keeping out of trouble from the high priestly and Pharisaic factions centred in Jerusalem? Perhaps. It may be significant that Luke records a number of positive interactions with Pharisees during that period (Luke 7.36; 11.37; 14.1). But the implication is clear that Jesus gained a considerable degree of support from and for his Galilean mission, which probably set alarm bells ringing in Jerusalem. The Fourth Evangelist even recalls a wave of enthusiasm to make Jesus king, a move from which Jesus shied away (John 6.15).
Excerpted from "Who Was Jesus?"
Copyright © 2016 James D. G. Dunn.
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Table of Contents
About the author,
2 Jesus' life,
3 Jesus' mission,
4 Jesus' self-understanding,