Jesus Christ, also known as Jesus of Nazareth or simply Jesus, is Christianity's central figure, both as Messiah and, for most Christians, as God incarnate. Muslims regard him as a major prophet and some regard him as the Messiah. Many Hindus also recognize him as a manifestation of the divine (as do Bahá'í believers), while some Buddhists identify him as a Bodhisattva. For Christians, Jesus' example, teaching, death and resurrection are inspirational of a life of service to others, of love-in-action. More than that, the person of Jesus represents God's revelation to humanity, making possible communion with God.
As might be expected with a man of this stature, partial understandings, and total misunderstandings of his life and mission abound. Jesus has been described as a peacemaker, as a militant zealot, as a feminist, as a magician, as a homosexual, as a married man with a family and a political agenda, as a capitalist, as a social activist and as uninterested in social issues, as offering spiritual salvation in another realm of existence and as offering justice and peace in this world.
Did he intend to establish a new religion, or was he a faithful Jew? Many Europeans have depicted him with Gentile features, light-skinned and with blue eyes. Departing entirely from the Biblical record, some Asians have speculated that he visited India and was influenced by Buddhism. Traditional belief is that Jesus lived in Palestine his entire life, except for a few childhood years in Egypt.
Learning of the real Jesus from amidst the cacophony of interpretations is a major critical task. That it is so challenging to uncover the real Jesus might be a blessing in disguise, forcing the serious minded to seek in humility and sincere prayer and surrender (as did Albert Schweitzer, who left the career of a critical scholar for that of a medical missionary in Africa). This approach may take the form of making a living spiritual relationship with Jesus-as Lord and Savior, or a teacher of wisdom, an exemplary life to follow, or a spiritual friend and guide. Above all, Jesus was the "man of sorrows" who, despite a most difficult life, never closed his heart and never ceased to love. Knowing Jesus in any of these ways may help us to value the spiritual dimension of life, to accept that God has a greater purpose for human life and for the world of his creation. Jesus invites us to follow him on a spiritual path in which serving God is manifest by giving of self and living for the sake of others.
The Historical Jesus
Until the late eighteenth century, few Christians doubted that the Jesus in whom they believed and the Jesus of history were identical. In 1778, a book by Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was posthumously published which ended this comfortable assumption. This launched what became known as the “Quest of the Historical Jesus.” Reimarus argued that the gospels contain a great deal of fabricated material that expressed the beliefs of the church, not historical fact. He sliced huge portions of text from the gospels, suggesting that angelic visits, miracles, Jesus' resurrection and ascension were all fabrications. Many incidents were borrowed from the Hebrew Bible, such as the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, to stress that Jesus had a lot in common with Moses. His forty-day temptation was to emulate Moses' various period of forty years. His feeding of crowds was to emulate Elijah. Reimarus points out, as do numerous others, that the disciples did not witness the main events of Jesus' trial and execution, or the resurrection.
The issues that Reimarus opened for debate remain the bread and butter of Jesus studies and of theological discussion. Did Jesus think of himself as the Messiah? Did he have any self-awareness of his divinity, or divine son-ship? Or did he consider himself simply a human being, like any other? Scholars also debate about whether Jesus preached a spiritual or a worldly message. Was he concerned about peace, justice, equality and freedom in this world, or about salvation from sin for a life in paradise after death? Was Jesus an apocalyptic preacher who believed that the end was near? Or was he a wisdom teacher giving truths for living in the present? It is no easy task to decide these questions, as features of the gospels support a variety of interpretations.
As to his life, scholarly consensus generally accepts that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, that he did not perform miracles (although he may have had some knowledge of healing), and that the resurrection was not a physical event but expresses the disciples' conviction that Jesus was still with them even though he had died.
In the Jesus Seminar, members used various techniques to authenticate Jesus' words, such as characteristic style of speech, what fits the context of a Jesus who was really a good Jew and who did not regard himself as divine, and what reflects later Christian theology. In its work, the members of the Jesus Seminar voted on whether they thought a verse was authentic or not. John's gospel attracted no positive votes. Many Christians regard Jesus as a pacifist, but the work of Horsley, among others, questions this, suggesting that Jesus did not reject violence.
Sources for Jesus Life
The primary sources about Jesus are the four canonical gospel accounts, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus spoke Aramaic and perhaps some Hebrew, while the gospels are written in koine (common) Greek. Dating of these texts is much debated but ranges from 70 C.E. for Mark to 110 C.E. for John-all at least 40 years after Jesus' death. The earliest New Testament texts which refer to Jesus are Saint Paul's letters, usually dated from the mid-first century, but Paul never met Jesus in person; he only saw him in visions. Many modern scholars hold that the stories and sayings in the gospels were initially handed down by oral tradition within the small communities of Christian believers, then written down decades later. Hence, they may mix genuine recollections of Jesus' life with post-Easter theological reflections of Jesus' significance to the church.
The first three gospels are known as the synoptic gospels because they follow the same basic narrative. If Mark was the earliest (as many scholars contend), Matthew and Luke probably had access to Mark, although a minority of scholars consider that Matthew was the earlier. Each writer added some additional material derived from their own sources. Many scholars believe that Matthew and Luke may have used a long-lost text called 'Q' (Quelle) while John may have used a “signs gospel.” These were not chronological narratives but contained Jesus sayings and signs (miracles) respectively. The Gospel of John has a different order. It features no account of Jesus' baptism and temptation, and three visits to Jerusalem rather than one. Considered less historically reliable than the synoptic gospels with its longer, more theological speeches, John's treatment of the last days of Jesus is, however, widely thought to be the more probable account.
In addition to the four gospels, a dozen or so non-canonical texts also exist. Among them, the Gospel of Thomas is believed by some critics to predate the gospels and to be at least as reliable as they are in reporting what Jesus said. However, the Gospel of Thomas was preserved by a Gnostic community and may well be colored by its heterodox beliefs.
Also considered important by some scholars are several apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Mary, the Infancy Gospels, the Gospel of Peter, the Unknown Berlin Gospel, the Naassene Fragment, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Egerton Gospel, the Oxyrhynchus Gospels, the Fayyum Fragment and some others compiled in The Complete Gospels (see Miller 1994).1 The authenticity of the recently published Gospel of Judas (2005)2 is contested, however it adds no new historical or biographical data. Finally, some point to Indian sources, such as the Bahavishyat Maha Purana3 for an alternative account. This is said to date from 115 C.E. Traditional Christian theologians doubt the reliability of this extra-biblical material.
Much popular and some scholarly literature also uses the Qumran Community's Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in a cave by the Dead Sea in 1946 or 1947 to interpret the life of Jesus.4 These documents shed light on what some Jews believed at roughly Jesus' time, and suggest that Jesus shared some ideas in common with the Qumran community and with the Essenes, but many agree with the Jesus Seminar's conclusion that the scrolls "do not help us directly with the Greek text of the gospels, since they were created prior to the appearance of Jesus."5 Josephus's (d. 100 C.E.) much-debated Testimonium Flavinium6is late, if authentic, as is the brief mention of Christ in Tacitus's Annals (d. 117 C.E.).
There is a great deal of discussion about the dating of Jesus' life. The canonical gospels focus on Jesus' last one to three years, especially the last week before his crucifixion, which, based upon mention of Pilate, would have been anywhere from the years 26 to 36 in the current era. The earlier dating agrees with Tertullian (d. 230) who, in Adversus Marcion XV, expresses a Roman tradition that placed the crucifixion in the twelfth year of Tiberius Caesar. A faulty sixth century attempt to calculate the year of his birth (which according to recent estimates could have been from 8 B.C.E. to 4 B.C.E. became the basis for the Anno Domini system of reckoning years (and also the chronologically-equivalent Common Era system).
The choosing of December 25 as his birthday was almost certainly because it corresponded with the existing winter solstice, and with various divine birthday festivals. The Eastern Church observes Christmas on January 6. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) suggested May 20.
The Gospel of John depicts the crucifixion just before the Passover festival on Friday, 14 Nisan, whereas the synoptic gospels describe the Last Supper, immediately before Jesus' arrest, as the Passover meal on Friday, 15 Nisan. The Jews followed a mixed lunar-solar calendar, complicating calculations of any exact date in a solar calendar.
According to John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew, allowing for the time of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate and the dates of the Passover in those years, his death can be placed most probably on April 7, 30 C.E. or April 3, 33 C.E. or March 30, 36 C.E.
Some scholars, notably Hayyim Maccoby, have pointed out that several details of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem-the waving of palm fronds, the Hosanna cry, the proclamation of a king-are connected with the Festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles, not with Passover. It is possible that the entry (and subsequent events, including the crucifixion and resurrection) in historical reality took place at this time-the month of Tishri in autumn, not Nisan in spring. There could have been confusion due to a misunderstanding, or a deliberate change due to doctrinal points.
Birth and Childhood
The traditional account of Jesus' life is that he was born at the beginning of the millennium, when Herod the Great was king. His birth took place in Bethlehem during a census and was marked by special signs and visitations. His mother, Mary, became pregnant without any sexual contact with her husband, Joseph (Matt. 1:20, 25). Jesus' birth had been announced to her by an angel. News that a king of the Jews had been born who was of the lineage of David reached Herod, who ordered the execution of all newborn male babies. Some recognized Jesus as the one who had been promised, who would bring salvation to the world (Luke 2:25-42). Matthew often cites Hebrew Bible passages, saying that they have been fulfilled in Jesus. Angelic warning enabled Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to flee to Egypt, where they remained for an unspecified period. They later returned to Nazareth in Galilee, their hometown (Matt. 2:23). At age 12, Jesus visited the Temple of Jerusalem (Luke 2:39-52), where he confounded the teachers with his wisdom. He spoke of “doing his Father's business.”
Several difficulties beset this account, beginning with the virgin birth. The notion of human parthenogenesis is scientifically implausible and ranks as perhaps the greatest miracle surrounding his life. It is commonplace for Christian believers to accept this claim at face value-especially given its theological import that Jesus was literally the "son" of God (compare pagan stories of heroes being fathered by Zeus coupling with mortal women). For those seeking a naturalistic explanation, candidates for his human father include the priest Zechariah, in whose house Mary lived for three months before her pregnancy became known (Luke 1:40, 56).
Yet the mere fact that the gospels proclaimed the virgin birth suggests that there were widespread rumors that Jesus was an illegitimate child-attested to by Mark 6:3 where his neighbors call him the "son of Mary"-not the son of Joseph. There is even a Jewish tradition asserts that he was fathered by a Roman soldier. These rumors undoubtedly caused many problems for Jesus and for Mary. The relationship between Mary and Joseph may have suffered, and as they had more children for whom parentage was not at issue, Jesus became an outcast even in his own home. As Jesus remarked, "A prophet is not without honor, except… in his own house" (Mark 6:4).
The above mentioned story of Jesus teaching in the Temple also hints at the strain between Jesus and his parents. His parents brought the boy to Jerusalem, but on the return trip they left him behind and did not know he was missing for an entire day. When they later found him, instead of apologizing for their neglect they upbraided Jesus for mistreating them (Luke 2:48).
Remembrance of the controversy surrounding Jesus' birth appears in the Qur'an, where Jesus' first miracle was when, although only a few days old, he spoke and defended his mother against accusations of adultery (Qur'an 19:27-33). As a boy, he made a clay bird fly (3:49 and 5:109-110). According to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas7 these childhood miracles caused great friction between Jesus' family and the other villagers. He must have suffered great loneliness. The prophetic verses of Isaiah hint at the suffering of his childhood: "He grew up… like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Isa. 53:2).
In those days it was customary for Jewish males to marry around age 18 to 20, with the match arranged by the parents. Yet Jesus did not marry-a very unusual situation in the society of his day. Did Jesus refuse to permit his mother to find him a wife for providential reasons? Or did his stained reputation make it difficult for his mother to find a suitable mate for him? At the marriage at Cana, when his mother asked Jesus to turn water into wine, he replied in anger, "O woman, what have you to do with me?" (John 2:4). Was he reproaching his mother for wanting him to help with the marriage of another when she did not provide him with the marriage he desired?
Jesus and John the Baptist
Jesus had a cousin, John. He started to preach, calling for people to prepare themselves for the coming of he who would judge and restore Israel (Luke 3:7-9). He baptized many as a sign that they were ready for the "Lord." When Jesus was 30 years of age, he accepted baptism from John at the Jordan River. A heavenly voice proclaimed that Jesus was God's “beloved son” (Mark 1:1-9). John then testified to Jesus (John 1:32-34).
John is traditionally honored on account of this testimony, yet evidence points to only half-hearted support for Jesus. There is no record that John ever cooperated with Jesus, and they seem to have founded rival groups. Quarrels broke out between John's disciples and Jesus' disciples (John 3:25-26), and while John obliquely praised his greatness, he kept his distance: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). John went his own way and ended up in prison, where he voiced his doubts, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (Matt. 11:3). Jesus answered in disappointment, "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Matt. 11:6). The Baptist movement remained a separate sect, continuing on after John's death. A small population of Mandaeans exists to this day; they regard Jesus as an impostor and opponent of the good prophet John the Baptist-whom they nonetheless believe to have baptized him.
According to Matthew's account, Jesus had assigned a role to John, that of Elijah the prophet, whose return Jews believed was to presage the Messiah (Matt. 11:14). The absence of Elijah was an obstacle to belief in Jesus (Matt. 17:10-13). John the Baptist was highly thought of by the Jewish leadership of his day. It must have disappointed Jesus greatly when John did not accept that role-he even denied it (John 1:21)-because it made his acceptance by the religious leaders of his day that much more difficult.
Jesus may have sought to overcome this setback by taking the role of the second coming of Elijah on himself, not least by performing miracles similar to what Elijah had done. Apparently this impression of Jesus was believed by some of his contemporaries-that he was the return of Elijah (Mark 6:14-16; Matt. 14:2).
After this, Jesus spent forty days fasting and praying in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan to use his gifts to serve himself, not others, and to gain worldly power. He completed this difficult condition victoriously. On that foundation, he began his ministry.
Some of his early preaching sounded a lot like John the Baptist: God's kingdom was at hand, so people should repent of their sins. Then, entering the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from Isaiah 61:17-25 to proclaim his role as the messiah-the word in Hebrew means "anointed one":
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
and to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19).
Many regard the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:27) as a summary of Jesus' teaching:
- "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
- "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."
- "Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
- "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."
- "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."
- "Do not be anxious about your life… but seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness."
- "Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye when you do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"
- "Enter by the narrow gate."
Jesus and His Disciples
Jesus chose 12 men to be his disciples, who appear to have spent most of the time in his company. He instructed them to sell what they had and give to the poor (Luke 12:33). He sent them out to preach from town to town (Matt. 10:5-15). When they gave feasts, they should invite the poor and the sick and the blind, not the great and the good (Luke 14:13). Jesus loved his disciples and shared their sorrows (John 11:32-36). He also tried to educate them, yet they were simple people not schooled in religion. He may have been disappointed to have to work with such, according to the Parable of the Banquet, in which all the invited guests find excuses not to come, leaving the master to beat the bushes to bring in the blind and the lame (Luke 14:16-24). They did not fully grasp his teachings, as when James and John asked whether they would sit on thrones (Mark 10:37). Jesus even suggests that he had truths he could not reveal because his disciples were not ready to receive them (John 16:12).
Jesus himself lived simply, accepting hospitality when it was offered. He was critical of wealth accumulation and of luxurious living, of storing up treasure on earth (Matt. 6:19-24). He enjoyed eating meals with the despised and rejected, challenging social and religious conventions, for which he was criticized (Mark 2:16; Matt. 9:11).
According to the gospels, Jesus healed and fed people. He exorcised demons. Once he walked on water. He also calmed a storm. He was especially sympathetic towards lepers. Yet while his miracles drew large crowds, they were not conducive to real faith. When he stopped performing them, the people melted away, leaving him alone with his few disciples (John 6).
He often spoke about the availability of “new life.” He invited people to be reborn spiritually, to become childlike again (Mark 10:15; John 3:3). Sometimes, he forgave sins (Mark 2:9). Once, he went to pray on a mountain top with three disciples, where Moses and Elijah appeared alongside him. This is known as the Transfiguration, because Jesus appeared to “glow with a supernatural glory” (Bennett 2001, 86).
Soon after, Peter, who was Jesus' chief disciple, confessed that he believed Jesus was the Messiah, the "Son of the Living God" (Matt. 17:16). The Messiah was the god-sent servant or leader whom many Jews expected would deliver them from Roman rule and reestablish the Davidic kingdom, restoring peace and justice. Jesus, though, told Peter not to tell anyone about this, which was later dubbed the “Messianic secret.”
Shortly after these events, Jesus starts to travel towards Jerusalem and also speaks of the necessity of his own death; of being rejected like the prophets, even of the chief priests delivering him up to die (Mark 10:33-34). Jerusalem, he said, would be surrounded by enemies and destroyed (Luke 21:6-8; Mark 13:2) which sounded threatening. He is depicted as at odds with the religious leaders, who started to plot against him. They also tried to trick him in debate (Mark 8:11; 10:2; 11:18; 12:3). They accused him of making himself God (John 10:33). Perhaps with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 in mind, Jesus said that before the “restoration,” he would have to suffer and be humiliated (Mark 9:12).
As he drew closer to Jerusalem, his popularity with the common people increased-but so did opposition from the religious leaders. Jesus' charismatic preaching-his teaching that people could have direct access to God-bypassed the Temple and the trained, official religious leaders. They challenged Jesus, asking on what or whose authority he did and said what he did (Matt. 21:23). Jesus had no Rabbinical training (John 7:14). He accused the religious leaders of loving the praise of people instead of God (John 12:43) and of rank hypocrisy, of being blind guides more fond of gold than of piety (Matt. 23), especially targeting the Pharisees.
Yet many scholars note similarities between Jesus and the Pharisees, who were the direct ancestors of rabbinic Judaism. Jesus, these writers point out, had a lot in common with Hillel and Honi the Circle Drawer, who are honored as Jewish sages in rabbinic literature. The Pharisees, like Jesus, were interested in inner piety; it was the Saducees, who controlled the Temple, who were interested in ritual observance. Jesus' criticisms in Matthew 23 make more sense if directed at the Saducees.
Those who stress common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees suggest that passages referring to Jews as plotting to kill him or as trying to trick him-and Jesus' criticism of them-were back-projected by a later generation of Christians to reflect their own estrangement from and hostility towards Judaism. Also, this deflected blame away from the Roman authorities, whom Christians wanted to appease. The scene where Pontius Pilate washed his hands would also be back projection.
Some posit that the gospels reflect a struggle between Jewish Christians, such as Peter and James, and the Paul-led Gentile Church. The Pauline victory saw an anti-Jewish and pro-Roman bias written into the gospel record (see Goulder 1995). It was also Paul who imported pagan ideas of sacrificial death for sin and dying and rising saviors into Christian thought. Some depict Jesus as a rabbi (see Chilton 2000). Some suggest that Jesus, if he was a rabbi, probably married (Funk 1993, 221; Phipps 1996, 174).
The Women in Jesus' Life
Women also belonged to Jesus' inner circle, spending much time with him (John 11:1-4). Jesus "loved Martha and her sister, Mary" and their brother Lazarus. He brought Lazarus back to life. He regarded this circle of disciples, including the women, as his spiritual family: "Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:35). Elizabeth S. Fiorenza stresses that Jesus affirmed the feminine and that Sophia (wisdom) was feminine-despite its later neglect by the church.8 Jesus was inclusive. He honored women's leadership together with that of men.
Among the women in Jesus' life, Mary Magdalene stands out. There have been many attempts, both scholarly and fictional, to elucidate her identity and importance.9 According to Mark 14:3-9, when Jesus was at Bethany, two days before the Last Supper, a woman anointed Jesus with costly ointment. John recounts the same story (John 12:1-8) and identifies the woman as Mary Magdalene. Judas Iscariot took offense at her extravagant devotion; it is the final insult that caused him to go to the priests to betray Jesus. At the resurrection, Mary was the first disciple to meet the resurrected Jesus, whom she wished to embrace (John 20:17); but he forbade it. In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, she appeared not only as the most devoted disciple, but as one to whom Jesus entrusted hidden wisdom beyond what he taught the male disciples.
What was the nature of Mary's relationship with Jesus? When Mary was anointing Jesus with oil, did Judas take offense only because of the extravagance, or was he jealous? (The conventional motivation for Judas' betrayal, over money, is unsatisfying considering that Judas was entrusted as the treasurer of Jesus' circle). Yet the gospels make no mention of Jesus having any sexual relations, or of marriage. Most Christians believe that Jesus was celibate.
Nevertheless, there is a genre of blood-line literature, for whom Jesus and Mary Magdalene established a lineage whose true identity has been protected by secret societies, such as the Knights Templar. The legendary Holy Grail refers not to the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper but to Jesus' blood line (see Baigent and Leigh). Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code transforms this into fiction, linking the concealment of Jesus' marriage and offspring with the suppression of the sacred feminine by a male-dominated Roman church. Jesus did not teach a spirituality that is best achieved by celibate withdrawal from the world but within the midst of life. Sexuality is not evil or dangerous-the devil's gateway to the soul-but sacred and holy.
The Kingdom of God
Jesus characteristically spoke in parables-earthly stories using metaphors drawn from daily life-often from agriculture and fishery with an inner spiritual meaning. He also used paradox. Most of all, he spoke about life in the Kingdom of God. He called God Abba (“Father”) and spoke of enjoying an intimate relationship with him (see John 13:10). Yet the dawning Kingdom of God also would bring about great social changes, in line with Jewish belief. The humble, he said, would be exalted and the proud brought low (Luke 18:14).
He seems to have referred to himself as the “Son of Man,” for example, saying, “foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:19). Several passages refer to the Son of Man coming “on a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27); others to signs of the End of Days when the Son of Man will come, although “of that day and hour no man knows” (Matt. 25:36). His end vision includes judgment between the nations (Matt. 25:32)-those who fed the hungry, visited the sick, and clothed the naked will be rewarded; those who did not will be punished.
Scholars have long debated what the content was of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. Most Christians are accustomed to thinking that he spoke of a spiritual kingdom that is "not of this world" (John 18:36). In the nineteenth century, Reimarus opened up the debate by suggesting that Jesus was preaching of an earthly kingdom, that he was concerned about peace, justice, equality and freedom in this world, more than about salvation from sin for a life in paradise after death. He presumed that Jesus thought himself the Messiah, but suggests that he failed in his mission, because he did not establish an earthly kingdom.
Miller (2001), who surveys this debate, asks whether Jesus was or was not an apocalyptic preacher. That is, did he think that the end was near? Reimarus placed eschatology at the center of discussion. Liberal scholars, most notably Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89) represented Jesus as a teacher of eternal truths, as a source of moral and ethical guidance. This stresses imitating Jesus, helping others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (Luke 6:46) more than believing in Jesus. Yet Ritschl's son-in-law, Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) proposed the antithesis that Jesus had been an apocalyptic preacher who thought the world as we know it would soon end.
Albert Schweitzer developed this thesis in his classic Quest of the Historical Jesus (English translation, 1910). He said that the liberals merely dressed Jesus in their own clothes. The real Jesus, he said, remains alien and exotic, so much a product of his eschatological worldview, which we do not share, that he escapes us-constantly retreating back into his own time. Jesus believed that his death on the cross, based on his understanding of himself as suffering Messiah, would usher in the Kingdom. This did not happen. In a sense, then, Jesus failed; yet from his example people can gain inspiration towards a life of self-sacrifice and love of others. We can, said Schweitzer, still respond to Jesus call to follow him. Although we can know little for certain about Jesus, a spirit flows from him to us calling us to existential sacrifice and service.
In the twentieth century, the work of Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar resurrected the idea that Jesus taught as sapiential, or here-and-now kingdom (see John 17:20-21). Others, like E.P. Sanders, have kept to the position that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. The picture of Israelite society that is now known from the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates that many Jews did expect a messiah, or even several messiahs, who would liberate them from Rome. Certainly this was the faith of the community at Qumran, and some scrolls scholars put John the Baptist in touch with them.
The events surrounding Jesus' last days-his death and resurrection-are called the Passion. Since it is generally believed that Jesus brought salvation through his atoning death on the cross, Jesus' Passion is the focus of Christian devotion more than his earthly ministry.
The Last Supper
After approximately three years of teaching, at the age of 33, Jesus entered Jerusalem. He did so dramatically, riding on a donkey (Matt 21:9) while the crowd that gathered shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” which, according to Bennett (2001), “looks ver