me in front of whiteboard teaching in New Orleans at Louisiana Bible College

Teaching Historical Jesus in New Orleans

me in front of whiteboard teaching in New Orleans at Louisiana Bible College
Thanks to a referral from Skip Moen, I’m enjoying leading a small class of students at Louisiana Bible College through a weekend intensive on “The Historical Jesus.” What do we mean by “the historical Jesus”? Really there are many different “Jesuses.” There are literary Jesuses, cinematic Jesuses, theological Jesuses, some people talk about “the Biblical Jesus”, and we might have a theoretical idea of “the actual Jesus.”

Just thinking about the many different historical Jesus — that is, the different ideas people have about who Jesus really was, his mission and purpose, the way he was understood by his generation, etc. — I started with a list of ten:

  • Political Revolutionary?
  • Cynic Sage?
  • Galilean Charismatic?
  • Pharisaic Teacher?
  • Misunderstood Visionary?
  • Counter-Jewish Founder of Christianity?
  • Divine Inhuman?
  • Mystic Saint?
  • Heavenly Savior?
  • Prophet Messiah?

Some Historical Jesus Ideas Defined

Jesus the political revolutionary came to bring down the system with subversive teaching and by starting a movement of radicals.

Jesus the cynic sage grew up near Gentile (allegedly) Sepphoris, met wandering Greek philosophers, imitated them, and taught in short aphorisms in a manner similar to them. Think of people like Diogenes the Cynic as models for this notion of who the historical Jesus was.

Jesus the Galilean charismatic was a figure like Honi the Circle Drawer, a pious but not formally trained teacher known for the effectiveness of his prayers. The precursors of the rabbis knew them to be men who could ask for and obtain miracles but held them in disregard because of their lack of formal education.

Jesus the Pharisaic teacher, aka Jesus the rabbi, is a more popular version in some circles. Rather than seeing him as an outsider to the Pharisees, some have imagined that Jesus was, in fact, a Pharisee. The fact that people referred to him as rabbi is one piece of evidence leading people to envision him this way. In this model, Jesus studied Torah, read the work of other rabbis, and formed a band of rabbinic disciples similar to those read about in rabbinical literature.

Jesus the misunderstood visionary did not come to be Messiah necessarily. He saw things from the realm beyond and he wanted other to have visions the way he did. He came to open us up the kingdom of God inside of us and to teach us transcendence and meditation.

The commonly believed in Jesus is the counter-Jewish founder of Christianity. He found fault with Judaism, a religion of works, that is, of earning favor with God by being and doing good. He came to eliminate some of God’s rules from the law of Moses and teach a new religion of faith.

Jesus the divine inhuman lacks any real humanity. He is all of the divine power appearing in human form. He was omniscient and omnipotent but allowed men to kill him so that God could die for us all.

Jesus the mystic saint is, I guess, really the same as the misunderstood visionary. There is no reason to believe he is divine, just someone who had transcendent experiences and perhaps could inspire us to also.

Jesus the heavenly savior is often combined with the counter-Jewish founder of Christianity. Everything he did should be interpreted as being about securing a pleasant afterlife for the saints. His words and deeds had little to do with his generation in Israel. He came to effect salvation for people who follow God’s “plan of salvation.” He cared little about this present world, preferring the eternal over the temporal.

Finally, Jesus the prophet Messiah came first and foremost as a prophet to his own generation but hinted at and planned to slowly unveil a larger identity. Many of his words and sayings relate to things happening in Israel in his time. He was a sort of Elijah and Jeremiah and Isaiah rolled into one. But he was more. He did things Elijah never could. His secret identity was something more. Though his death threw his disciples off track and made them doubt the whole enterprise, when he came back from death and, more importantly, appeared to them from heaven with his own divine glory, they realized he was much, much more. See my book Divine Messiah (here on amazon) for more.

Toward an Understanding of Jesus, Historically

The class is a three-day intensive. So my plan is simple:

  • Day 1: Theory
  • Day 2: Eyewitnesses
  • Day 3: Application

I have students reading Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and my book Yeshua in Context (here on amazon).

One of the things we have to understand to consider Jesus historically is the nature of the evidence, which means the nature of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). We cover some of that on day 1 and a lot more on day 2. We have to grasp what the Gospels are and how the experiences some people had with Jesus lay behind these writings we know as Gospels.

Those who encountered him were at first astounded by his miracles, his counter-cultural teachings, the power of his personal presence. If we had to use one word for the effect he had on them it would probably be a cross between amazement and perplexity. And when these witnesses of his life told their stories, they did not turn them into sermons full of theological meaning. They told stories in all of their ambiguity in a manner similar to the way they actually happened and in the strangeness with which these events appeared to them at first.

Realizing that is part of the beginning to unraveling our understanding of the historical Jesus, Yeshua the prophet Messiah of Israel.

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  1. On Thursday night we watche a documentary on PBS entitled “The Last Days of Jesus”. I found it fascinating. Wanted to make sure you were aware of it.

    One of aspect of Bible study that interests me is the historical setting. That is, what was going on in the rest of the world at the time of both testaments.

    Interesting stuff.

    1. Hey, Tom,

      I haven’t heard about “The Last Days of Jesus” documentary. Thanks for mentioning it. Yes, the rule in real estate is “location, location, location” and in biblical studies it’s “context, context, context.”

  2. It seems to me that the first observation that must be offered about the “historical Jesus” is that he is the ahistorical fictional creation of gentile Christianity in the period leading to the Nicene Council. Once that has been clarified, it becomes possible to discuss the historical personage Rabbi Yeshua ben-Yosef upon whom the fictional character was presumably based. The historical Yeshua may be detected primarily in the gospel accounts, though he is mentioned briefly in historical accounts by Josephus; and there are even oblique references to him in Talmud — though most purported references therein are rather to the fictionalized version developed by a Christianity inimical to Judaism. The gospels depict an itinerant Galilean Pharisaic rabbi who emphasized that Jews should internalize the Torah to guide their worldview and attitudes as well as their deeds, consciously embracing the vision of HaShem as an ever-present father-figure as well as a king to whom personal allegiance is sworn. Like other Pharisees of his time, he asserted arguments regarding the interpretive application or halakhah of the Torah. The apostolic record of some of these arguments has been misconstrued as revolutionary antagonism, despite his clear statement of support for the authority of the scribes and Pharisees that he also criticized. He cited the prophetic messianic image of the “son-of-man” character evoked by the prophet Daniel as representing the pattern of his own ministry or mission, which was felt to be politically threatening to the delicate balance that Jewish authorities had established with the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. This led to his arrest and execution under Roman auspices. While the reports of his resurrection are as well-supported historically as any other details of his life, the extraordinary nature of such an event renders it more difficult to credit as reported and invites all manner of speculation about its significance and what it may imply about theology and epistemology. Interpretations of his teachings range from literal to midrashically allegorical, and no uniform consensus exists about which portions may fall anywhere on such a spectrum. Research continues in the hope that proper contextualization may improve any given rendering; and the resulting characterization the may fit into any of the ten categories listed in the above essay.

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