According to the Gospels, Jesus believed he had eternal life and a bond with God from the beginning of creation until the end of times. And so, Christians and Muslims expect him to return. Remarkably, Muhammad and the Jewish prophets did not view themselves this way. So, what makes Jesus different? Jesus started a religion that has 2.2 billion followers today. It is an enigma. Apart from a historical account, an explanation of Jesus’ beliefs may help us understand him. We can try to reconstruct what Jesus believed and did with the help of historical analysis. To do that, we need historical sources like the gospels to uncover what happened and what Jesus’ taught, but that may not be enough. It does not explain Jesus’ supposed close relationship with God.
The earliest written sources of Christianity date from decades after Jesus died. Scholars think Christians first depended on oral traditions and used writings that no longer exist. Oral recounting is notoriously inaccurate. And there is evidence of redactions in the New Testament. And so, scholars agree on very little about Jesus of Nazareth, except that he lived and preached around 25 AD. Possibly, his ministry started soon after John the Baptist had baptised him. That is where the Gospel of Mark begins.
So, who was Jesus, and what did he teach? To find out, we must try to reconstruct the beliefs of the earliest Christians. To do that, historians investigate the oldest sources and earliest controversies among Christians. You can look at obfuscations and changes in the official gospels and epistles. And you can look at unofficial gospels that served different political agendas as they may reveal facts the Church Fathers did not want you to know. You can also look at Judaism and Islam. The Abrahamic religions must make sense together if the Abrahamic God exists. The mysteries and controversies have origins.
Around 1760 AD, the German scholar Hermann Samuel Reimarus realised there was a difference between what Jesus did and preached and what his followers came to believe about him. Reimarus began to investigate the historical Jesus or what Jesus thought and did. He claimed that Jesus lived in the context of first-century Judaism and was a typical Jewish apocalyptic prophet of his time.1
Reimarus was a Deist. Deists believe in a Creator and claim that religion requires a rational foundation. Revelation does not come with evidence, so it can never be credible to everyone. For instance, if someone claims to have seen an angel who told him that he is a prophet, then without evidence, he may only convert a few people. People are not always convinced. And Deists reason that God created the laws of nature, so God does not need the supernatural to achieve His goals.
Of the accounts of Jesus’ life, much is doubtful. For instance, his mother probably was not a virgin. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke mention the virgin birth, but the accounts differ. And scholars doubt that God raised Jesus from the dead. To Paul, the resurrection was a belief passed on to him. And he does not corroborate the Gospels on this matter. He lists the people who saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) but does not mention any women, the empty tomb, or Joseph of Arimathea. If the accounts diverge so widely, it may be impossible to establish what happened. I will come up with an explanation of the divergencies that might reveal what happened.
When Jesus lived, the apocalypse was in the air. Many people believed that the end was near and that God would send a messiah to punish the wicked and reward the faithful. Zoroastrianism could be the origin of these beliefs. This religion affected Judaism and the Greek and Persian worlds. The end times, the arrival of a messiah, and a final reckoning still define Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking. Jesus probably believed that he was the long-awaited messiah, and many people saw him as the future king of Israel (Mark 11:8-10, John 12:12-14). And Jesus may have seen himself in this way too.
Christians believe that Jesus’ kingdom is in heaven and that Jesus never aspired to become a worldly king (John 6:14-15), but they also expect his return. Historians look at the Gospels in their historical context. The Gospels tell that the Romans crucified Jesus for claiming to be king of the Jews (John 19:19). In the Jewish tradition, there is no such thing as a heavenly king uninterested in political power. Christianity developed after the crucifixion, and the Gospels reflect that. At first, Christians expected Jesus to return soon, and early letters of Paul emanate this expectation (for instance, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). The destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD ended these hopes. The Gospels are from that era. Two coping strategies emerged. Christians came to see Jesus as an eternal heavenly ruler who gives eternal life (for instance, John 5:24). They also began to look for signs that would precede his return, such as false messiahs, wars, famines and earthquakes, and the persecution of the faithful (for instance, Matthew 24:4-13).
After 2,000 years, some Christians still proclaim the end of the world and set dates for Jesus’s return using bible verses and arcane calculations. Jesus supposedly said that only God knows the hour (Mark 13:32). Jesus thought he was about to save the people of Israel. He did not care much about Gentiles. Only tokens of strong faith made him consider their pleas. Paul later turned Christianity into a universal religion that is open to everyone. Jesus may have had only a few dozen followers or a few hundred. That may be why other sources of his era do not mention him.
Jesus did not intend to abolish Jewish law (Matthew 5:17-18), but he preferred substance over adhering to procedure. He was critical of the Pharisees and their obsession with ritual. Jesus was remarkably respectful of women. Jewish culture in the first century AD was patriarchal. Jewish writers in Jesus’ time, for instance, Philo, taught that women should never leave home except to go to the synagogue.
The Gospels of the New Testament more often mention women than other texts of the same era. Of all the founders of religions and religious sects, Jesus may have been the only one who did not discriminate against women. Jesus spoke to women in public (Luke 7:11-17), and he was compassionate for them and respected their dignity, even when they were sinners (Luke 7:36-50, John 8:3-11). At this point, Jesus ignored traditional Jewish law. His views on marriage were even more unusual. But why?
The identity of God
The Gospels state that Jesus had a personal and intimate relationship with God. Scholars agree that the Gospels have been edited.
Latest revision: 29 April 2023
Featured image: Jesus and Minas Coptic icon dating from the 6th or 7th century. Clio20 (Anonymous). Wikimedia Commons.
1. Jesus Christ: The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith. J.R. Porter (1999). Duncan Baird Publishers
2. Jesus’ Extraordinary Treatment of Women. Franciscan Media. [link]