The little we know of Jesus is unfortunately limited to New Testament Gospels primarily written for theological purposes: “The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (St. Mark 1.1). Among the main historical elements we can discern about the short one to two-year period that the Gospels cover:

  • Jesus was born and raised in the Galilean province of Israel. Along with Syria, Israel had been dominated by Roman rule since the 63 B.C.E. Pompey conquest. Replacing a century of independence (165–63 B.C.E.), the Romans governed Israel as a dominion or client state with collusion of native aristocratic and priestly families.
  • Socially and economically, Jesus’ Israel was primarily an agrarian society whose peasantry lived under a regimen of Roman, royal, and priestly taxes, and usurious loans (Note #15).
  • Jesus’ audiences were Jews from Israel’s Galilean and Judean countryside. “In so far as we can trust the specific information given us by the Gospels there is no evidence that Jesus ever entered the urban area of any Greek city” (Ste. Croix 2006, pp. 330–331).
  • Jesus’ reformist preachings were influenced by a Jewish social reformer, John the Baptist (ca. 4–29 C.E.), whose core message was “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” This theme reflected Jewish dependence on God Yahweh’s supremacy and goodwill — “Yahweh is our king; he will save us” (Isaiah (33.22). More than just a prophet, John the Baptist also headed a movement censuring the existing aristocratic order, leading to his execution by Herod’s son, Herod Antipas — the Roman-approved overlord of Jesus’ Galilean homeland.
  • To both John the Baptist and Jesus, the “Kingdom of God” was imminent here on earth. “[T]he time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has become near, repent” (St Mark 1.15, St. Matthew 4.17). “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power” (St Mark 9.1, St. Matthew 16.28, St. Luke 9.27). Both also showed concern that it provides justice for the oppressed. “Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night” (St. Luke 9.27).
  • Both Jesus and John the Baptist believed they shared God’s “authority” (St. Mark 11.29–32), while the ruling class saw both as subversives.
  • After John the Baptist was killed, Jesus preached in the Galilean countryside for a one or two-year period during the reign of Roman emperor Tiberius (14–37 C.E.).
  • Jesus kept membership in his movement informal, with no special baptism or initiation requirements.
  • To Jesus, nothing in one’s past or present, whether of personal needs or family, should hold one back from imminent action in fighting for the “Kingdom of God.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (St. Luke 9.62). “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Ibid., 14.26).
  • Jesus observed the laws and rituals prescribed in the Jewish Scriptures: such as circumcision, dietary laws, observance of Jewish Holidays, and pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple (Note #16).
  • Jesus visited Jerusalem for Passover celebrations during the Roman rule of the Procurator Pontius Pilate (26–36 C.E.).
  • Jesus was involved in a disturbance in the Jerusalem Temple.
  • Jesus was accused of a capital offence (“sedition”), and crucified in Jerusalem with other Jews by order of Pontius Pilate.
  • After Jesus’ death, all that remained of his original movement in Roman Palestine was a small network of Jewish followers, headed by St. James (“James the Just”), which moved from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Throughout Jesus’ history, his Jewish orientation is notable, and New Testament sayings that can reliably be ascribed to Jesus show that his message was specifically to Jews, not Gentiles. “These twelve [disciples] Jesus sent out with the following instructions:Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, explain the good news [of the Kingdom of God]’” (St. Matthew 10.5–6). Jesus’ use of “twelve” is a symbolic reference to the twelve tribes of Israel; that is, to Israel itself, in which Jesus’ disciples, like the prophets before them, are to help achieve justice and freedom from oppression (Horsley 2012, p. 121).

His exclusive mission to fellow Jews and low regard for Gentiles is also recorded in other sayings (St. Matthew 5.47, 6.7, 6.32, 18.17), and most harshly in an encounter with a Gentile woman asking for help for her daughter. Jesus replies “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel … It is not fair to take the [Jewish] children’s food and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles]” (St. Matthew 15.24–26, St. Mark 7.27). Although the woman pleads, and Jesus relents, this show of anti-Gentile bias is striking, and many Gospel sayings attempt to counter its hostility.

According to unprejudiced scholars, sayings attributing a “universal” evangelizing message to Jesus were added by later Christian writers to accord with a Gentile audience. “No authentic command to bring the good news to all nations of the world can be traced to Jesus’ (Vermes 2012, p. 67). Other concepts held by Jesus’ disciples, such that Jesus was completely human and not divine, and commandments by Jesus to retain their Jewish identity, were, according to Ehrman (2011a), later modified by New Testament writers to coincide with new “orthodoxies.”

Jesus’ renowned statement “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (St. Mark 2.27), does not contest Jewish belief but is actually of Pharisaic origin, as is his engagement in Sabbath healing (E. P. Sanders 1985, pp. 264–267). Gospel accounts in which Jesus supposedly disclaimed observance of the Sabbath and defied Jewish dietary restrictions contradict the traditional practices and beliefs of the Jewish Christian movement led by his own disciples. Such non-Jewish notions were most likely introduced to comply with St. Paul’s new “Gospel of Christ” that Jewish Scriptural commandments be ignored to accommodate to Gentile life styles (Notes #2, #14), and oppose Jewish Christian “Judaizers” (Note #17). In an extensive chapter called “Jesus Kept Kosher,” Boyarin (2012, p. 103) shows that Jesus “saw himself not as abrogating the Torah but as defending it. There was controversy with some other Jewish leaders as to how best to observe the Law, but none … about ‘whether’ to observe it.

Towards his countrymen, Jesus’ fundamental social ethic stems directly from Jewish Scriptures. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). “Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood” (Jeremiah 22.3). Thiessen and Merz (p. 394): “Jesus’ ethic is a Jewish ethic… the centre of its content lies in the Torah… Jesus presents it as a Jewish rabbi.” In the words of Rabbi Hillel, early in the first century C.E., “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah.”

The true distinguishing mark of Jesus’ piety lies in his emphasis on the inner significance of commandments” (Vermes 2010, p. 8). “The general Gospel picture of Jesus is that of a Jew who conforms to the principal religious practices of his nation in contrast to St. Paul’s open antipathy towards all form ofJudaizing’” (Ibid. p. 23). “There is no instance in the Gospels in which Jesus sets out to criticize the Torah itself; all the controversial statements turn on conflicting laws or on the precise understanding of a precept” (Ibid. p. 25; also Note #16). E. P. Sanders (2002, p. 41) claims: “There is some good evidence that Jesus accepted purification and sacrifice (as well as other ancient views, such as that God especially dwelt in the Temple), and there is not good evidence against it.” In contrast to St. Paul’s abandoning Jewish dietary laws (Romans 14), St. Peter’s refusal to eat non-kosher meat (Acts of the Apostles 10.14) shows that Jesus’ disciples followed Jesus’ observance of Jewish dietary laws. According to Vermes (2012, p. 52), the phrase “he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7.19) is an editorial “addendum” by a “redactor” for Gentile Christian consumption. (Redactors: “editors who revised [Gospel] traditions in the light of new historical situations and new theological viewpoints”; Kelsey, p. 144.)

Significantly, the language used by Jesus, his disciples, and his Jewish audiences was Aramaic, Israel’s common Semitic language of the time, rather than Greek of the Christian New Testament, a different language directed to different people. For example, we know that the first account of the Jewish-Roman 66–72 C.E. War by Josephus, the Jewish historian, was in Aramaic for Jews in the Eastern Mediterranean, and only later did Josephus write in Greek for a “broader reading public” (Barclay 1996, p. 346). We also know of a large Aramaic literature that translated and paraphrased the Jewish Scriptures, enabling Jewish villagers to study and worship their Bible in local dialect (Chilton et al., pp. 37–42).

Also noteworthy, the “Gospel” of the Jewish Christian Nazorean sect, although lost, was probably in Aramaic, written in Hebrew script and not New Testament Greek (Petersen 1992, also Ehrman and Pleŝe, p. 199). Despite considerable confusion about the content and numbers of lost Jewish Gospels (Ehrman and Pleŝe, pp. 197–200), it is significant that the Nazoreans, who marked their descent from Jesus’ original Galilean followers, continued to use Aramaic rather than the Greek of the “Hellenists” (see below).

As for Jesus, how much Greek he knew will never be clear, but he most likely would not have needed it to be a carpenter, to teach the Galilean crowds, to travel around the lake, or to venture into the villages associated with Tyre, Caesarea, Philippi, and the Decapolis cities.…It is unlikely that literacy would have been widespread among such a group [Jesus’ followers] and unclear why the rare literary member would have chosen to compose such a text [Jesus’ sayings] in Greek rather than Aramaic” (Chancey, pp. 163–164). “[I]t is obviously in the Aramaic-speaking rural communities dependent on them, and not in the Hellenized urban centres themselves that [Jesus’] interests lie” (Scholer, p. 9).

According to Casey (2010, p. 158), Aramaic “was the only language used in the Galilean countryside.” Feldman (1992, pp. 20–21): “Indeed, it is clear that the predominant language of the [Palestinian] Jews from the time of the Babylonian captivity in 586 B.C.E. until after the Arab conquest of Palestine in 640 C.E. was not Greek, but Aramaic” Of all mentioned communities in which Jesus preached, none were major Galilean cities such as Tiberias, Scythopolis, and Sepphoris (E. P. Sanders 1992, p. 64), which may have had some Greek-speaking populations.

By contrast to the Aramaic of Jesus and his disciples, the New Testament Gospels, each claiming to recount details of Jesus’ life, actions, and sayings, were written in Greek by writers and editors (“redactors”) who were not his countrymen or disciples, nor shared the immediate concerns of his audiences. Thus, the disparity between Jesus’ oral Aramaic speeches and the later literary Gospels’ Greek accounts and interpretations (Note #12), follows a disparity between different languages aimed at distinctly different cultural audiences. On one hand were Aramaic-speaking Galilean Jewish peasants counterpoised to St. Paul’s cosmopolitan urban Greek speakers from outside the Jewish homeland, who were Gentiles with few, if any, Jews (see also Note #14).

Horsley (2005, p. 12) makes the point that “Galilean and Judean villagers spoke a dialect of Aramaic, so they would hardly have understood Hebrew if it were read to them. The Gospel of Luke is projecting [later] Greek urban practices onto the synagogue in Nazareth in its portrayal of Jesus opening a scroll of Isaiah and reading from it.” However, even if Hebrew language education were prevalent, as some scholars suggest, there is little if any evidence that Jewish villagers would have conversed in Greek, nor would they have read or quoted the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures (called the “Septuagint LXX”). Thus, in referring to other scholarly work, R. N. Longenecker (1999, page 47) poses the question: “Why, if Jesus spoke and taught in Aramaic, is it that not only are his words recorded in Greek but his biblical quotations are based on the [Greek] LXX, and not on a Hebrew or Aramaic version?” It is apparent that Jesus’ Aramaic speeches were rewritten, and perforce edited, in a language foreign to him and his listeners.

The author of Acts of the Apostles divides early Christians after Jesus’ death into two groups: “Hebrews,” native Judeans/Galileans which would have included Jesus’ original disciples, speaking primarily Aramaic; and “Hellenists,” Greek-speaking Jesus-followers who came from outside Israel. “Thus it is now thought that it was this community of Christian Hellenists who accelerated the transferal of the Jesus tradition from Aramaic into Greek, who helped bring Christian theology fully into the realm of Greek thought freed from Aramaic pre-acculturation, who were instrumental in moving Christianity from its Palestinian setting into the urban culture of the larger Empire, who first saw the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for a Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles (and for Jews), and who were the bridge between Jesus and Paul. These Christian Hellenists were the founders of Christian mission outside Palestine, and a theological tradition capable of articulating a gospel for the Greco-Roman world” (T. W. Martin, p. 136). Although it is still unknown whether these Hellenists were Jews or non-Jews (Kee 2013b, p. 80), it is again quite unlikely that any such Greek-speaking Hellenists were among Jesus’ Galilean disciples and followers.

Since Jesus is believed to have been killed about the year 30 C.E., the Gospels are distanced from Jesus the Jew by their time as well as by their language. According to modern scholars, the earliest of the four “canonized” Gospels (St. Mark’s) was written about 70 C.E., forty or more years following Jesus’ death, and the last Gospel (St. John’s) was written no earlier than the close of the first century C.E. or beginning of the second. It was not until the end of the second century; more than 150 years after Jesus’ death, that final edited versions of the Gospels were generally accepted as the primary Christian Scriptures about the life of Jesus, although many differences between them, textual and narrative, endured (Note #12). Thus, M. Grant (p. 106) claims that neither oral or written sources can provide reliable information on Jesus’ actual sayings: “[A]n oral tradition, if it is concerned with material relating to religious and miraculous beliefs stands no chance of surviving unchanged for more than thirty years. As to written sources, it seems only too likely that those who listened to Jesus had no idea of writing down his words or actions at the time, for transmission to posterity.”

According to detailed studies by more than 70 New Testament scholars, less than one out of five sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were actually said (Funk et al. 1993), and very few of the actions attributed to Jesus actually occurred (Funk et al. 1998). “Not Mark, and even less so any other gospel, can give us reliable information about the course of Jesus’ ministry or tell us anything about Jesus’ motivations, his experiences, or his self-consciousness” (Koester 2007, p. 271).

Unfortunately, although St. Paul’s letters (ca. 50–68 C.E.) are the earliest known Christian writings, he records nothing of Jesus’ life or death, except his crucifixion and presumed resurrection. Other than imagined visions, St. Paul never saw or heard Jesus, nor does he show any interest in Jesus’ life as a radical and reformer, activities which gave Jesus fame and followers. “When we come to the ‘biographical’ elements in Jesus’ life, the resemblance between Gospels and Pauline Epistles totally disappear. The Epistles had shown an astonishing, total, ignorance of every single fact of Jesus’ life before the Last Supper” (M. Grant, p. 213). As discussed in many places throughout this monograph, St. Paul’s concern was to fit Jesus into basic themes of a new Gentile Christian faith. He focused on a mythical non-historical Jesus, Jesus Christ: “I decide to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2.2):

  • that Jesus Christ was a divine or semi-divine figure sent to save Gentiles from sin;
  • that although Jesus Christ was born and lived as a Jew, his message as Savior was not to follow the Jewish law;
  • that one is saved by forming a mystical bond with Jesus Christ through “faith.”

St. Paul’s statement “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2.16), was made to justify the mystical claim that one can propound beliefs, values, and thoughts of an imagined universal divine “savior” in whom one must have “faith.” To enhance this necessity of faith, St. Paul transfers Adam’s “original” sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden to all descendants, for whom “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God [for faithful Christians] is eternal life in Christ our Lord” (Romans 6.23). “As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.22). However, to St. Paul, Christ’s redemption is not conferred evenly on all “sins” and all “sinners.” That is, one is not redeemed by faith in Christ for sins committed in trying to follow Jewish Scriptural “Law” (Galatians 5.4: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourself off from Christ”) — but, strangely, faith in Jesus Christ redeems one from ancestral Adam’s sins (for which one is not really culpable).

Because St. Paul’s letters added so little historical information, gaining details about Jesus’ life must rely on New Testament Gospels appearing decades later. Unfortunately, as in St. Paul, it is a Jesus of “faith” that prevails in Gospel accounts, while historical aspects of Jesus lie hidden in stories designed to provide and minister to religious beliefs of the Gospel communities. “To read a Gospel is to be led out of Galilee, out of Jerusalem, into the Church community of a later day” (Rousseau, p. 50). “The Gospels derive from a process of accretion in which an original image of Jesus was overlaid with all kinds of later material which expresses the faith of the early Church but does not go back to Jesus” (Watson, p. 160).

Also, the dramatic theatrical style of the Gospels was designed to help favor Christianity’s attractiveness and not to present an unbiased portrayal of events. “[T]he popularity of the [Gospel] genre among early Christians as a way of spreading the word about Jesus’ life and teaching may be ascribed in part to the novelty of this sort of writing” (Goodman 2007a, pp, 179–180). The new “Gentilized” Jesus was torn from his provincial “Kingdom of God” movement and placed by New Testament writers on a lofty Greco-Roman stage as a divine Jesus Christ, Son of God, and savior of mankind, product of an occultic birth, life, death, and resurrection (see Notes #11.d, #22).

However, other than endorsing a “Kingdom of God,” Jesus’ authentic message bore no further theological notions. He neither proclaimed nor indicated that he was a non-human divinity and member of a Holy Trinity — concepts that became basic Gentile Christian “Christological” doctrines. (See also Note #11.b.) “[T]he church transformed the metaphorical content of kingdom of God. It removed the implications for social and political change the term had for Jesus, just as it transformed Jesus into a more spiritual savior” (Kaylor p. 75).

St. Paul’s letters and Gospel stories of Jesus’ opposition to Jewish practices, enabled Gentile Christian leaders to create a religion in which the “Jewishness” of Jesus was muted to little more than a natal connection. By contrast: “Jesus certainly did not intend to found a new religion. He did not repudiate Scripture — far from it. And he did not call in question the law of Moses, though on occasion he emphasized some Scriptural principles at the expense of others” (Stanton, p. 296). “Insofar as Jesus’ position, unswerving on monotheism … was wholly unthreatening in respect of circumcision, Sabbath and food laws, he was at one with each and every other member of his people. That he attracted attention on how a law should be interpreted and applied, which he did, is not the same as attracting criticism for setting a law aside, which he did not. Much the same can be said of his position vis-a-vis the Temple” (Catchpole, p. 301).

Considering that Jesus’ disciples continued observance of the Temple after his death, it is quite clear that Jesus’ action which led to his crucifixion must have been to reform its priestly governance (perhaps in accord with an Essene doctrine) and not to destroy the Temple — a political not religious act (Note #21). Notwithstanding his condemnation of apparent exploitative practices, Jesus saw the Temple as a sacred place for worship (St. Mark 1.44, St. Matthew 23.19). Jesus’ statement, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (St. Mark 13.2, St. Matthew 24.2, St. Luke 21.6) appears as a fabricated prophecy of the Roman 70 C.E. destruction 40 or so years after Jesus’ death. It was obviously designed to turn Jesus’ anger at priestly corruption against the Temple itself, the prime Jewish religious structure extant at the time.

In Oakman’s terms (2008, p. 4), far from contesting Jewish religious practices, we can discern that “the peasant aims of Jesus was profoundly political — encompassed symbolically under an image about God’s power — and entirely social as might be expected of a peasant sage and reformer.” Jesus’ social and political activity in first century Israel, efforts for which he died — “the Jesus of History” — is therefore quite different from the “Christology” and religious innovations St. Paul and the Gospels conferred on Jesus in the Gentile Christian Church — “the Jesus of Faith.”

Thiessen (1999, pp. 33–34): “Jesus had a Jewish identity. He revitalized the sign language of Judaism. He revived it in light of its central content — belief in the one and only God.… His conflicts with his contemporaries were conflicts within Judaism and not with Judaism. He did not represent an exodus from Judaism but a renewal movement within it. Here he belonged in a series of renewal movements within Judaism since the period of the Maccabees — in an unbroken series of attempts to revitalize the Jewish religion. Since almost always this happened directly or indirectly as a response to the challenge from the great powers that dominated Judaism, none of these renewal movements — including the Jesus movement — can be understood without this political framework.”

In sum, one can say: Gentile Christianity’s Jesus Christ was not the Jesus of the Jews to whom he preached. Jesus was Jewish, St. Paul’s Gentile Christianity was not (Notes #2, #14).

For further studies of Jesus the Jew, see, for example: Casey 1991, pp. 72–74; Gray; Swidler, pp. 42–74; Vermes 1993.