(Originally published in New Dictionary of Theology. David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, J.I. Packer (eds), 348-351. IVP. Reproduced by permission of the author.)

JESUS. Who is Jesus? How much can be reliably discovered about him? What is the significance of his ministry in 1st-century Palestine? Such are the questions posed by contemporary NT scholarship.

Modern questions about Jesus

Questions about Jesus have been central to, and symptomatic of, most major movements in the theology of the last three centuries. The rationalism of the Enlightenment, for all its obvious faults, did at least press these questions in an ultimately useful way, forcing the church to take seriously its own confession that in Jesus God had not merely addressed the world but had actually entered it. This movement produced the so-called ‘Quest for the historical Jesus’, chronicled and criticized by Schweitzer, who offered by contrast an apocalyptic Jesus, firmly anchored in 1st-century Judaism (as it was then perceived), often strikingly dissimilar to the religious needs and expectations of the early 20th century.

A different kind of criticism had already been made by Kahler, who argued (1892) that the search for the ‘historical Jesus’ was based on a mistake and was theologically worthless. This position was developed in different ways by Barth and Bultmann, the latter of whom stoutly denied even the possibility, let alone the significance, of knowing anything about the ‘personality’ of Jesus, the category with which Schweitzer had tried to make the 1st-century Jesus relevant to subsequent ages. What the church needed was the ‘Christ of faith’, the living Lord known in the present. The so-called ‘New Quest’ initiated by Käsemann as an antidote to the potential docetism of Bultmann’s position modified the latter’s scepticism to only a limited degree.

Since the mid-1970s, however, a distinct new movement, a third ‘quest’, has begun, taking the Jewish background and the actual historical task far more seriously than most of its predecessors: it can be seen in the (very different) books of B. F. Meyer, Geza Vermes, A. E. Harvey, M. Borg and E. P. Sanders. A feature of modern study of Jesus has been a renewed awareness of the importance of the subject for contemporary Jewish-Christian relationships, and many Jewish writers have attempted to ‘reclaim’ Jesus as a good Jew misinterpreted by his subsequent followers. As yet few major questions are settled in this new wave of study, but the way in which the problems are being posed is potentially fruitful, despite the Kahler-like scepticism which still greets any historical work on Jesus whose theological usefulness to the church is not immediately apparent.

Within current scholarship, then, there is still wide divergence over the amount of information available to us about Jesus. This state of affairs has the merit of drawing attention to the fact that most reconstructions include or exclude material not for ‘objective’ reasons, nor because of particular views of the source-criticism of the gospels, but because of the historian’s over-all hypothesis. It is becoming clear that the old liberal disjunction of facts and values, of ‘event’ and ‘interpretation’, and ultimately of history and theology, is unsatisfactory. All reporting of the past involves selection, and hence interpretation: three people were crucified on Good Friday, and even to say ‘Jesus died’ selects Jesus’ death as the significant one. To say ‘Jesus died for us’ is not to move from event to interpretation but to claim that the event has, in itself, a particular significance. The fact that such language permeates the gospels does not therefore invalidate them as historical sources: it merely means that they must be read with uncommon sensitivity.

Jesus in his historical context

1. Any attempt to reconstruct the history (in the fullest sense) of Jesus must begin with the Jewish context (see also Paul). Modern study of 1st-century Judaism has revealed a much more varied picture than used to be supposed by those who simply painted Judaism, and the Pharisees in particular, in dark shades to offset the jewel of the gospel. Three features of 1st-century Judaism stand out: a. belief in the one creator God who had entered into covenant with Israel; b. hope that this God would step into history to establish his covenant by vindicating Israel against her enemies (a recurring metaphor for this vindication was the resurrection of God’s people); and c. the determination to hasten this day by remaining loyal to the covenantal obligations enshrined in the law (Torah). Debates within Judaism tended to focus on the precise way in which the hope would be fulfilled or on the precise details of covenantal obligation.

For many Jews, hope crystallized in the expectation of a Messiah (i.e. an ‘anointed’ king from David’s family) who would spear head God’s deliverance of his people. For virtually all, the temple was the focus of the national life and hope: more than merely the place of prayer or sacrifice, it was the symbol of God’s presence with his people, the sign that he had not forgotten them. Temple and Messiah went together in the Jewish mind: the original temple had been built by David’s son (Solomon), and the coming Son of David would restore the temple to its full, and promised, glory.

Jesus, then, was born into a people whose national aspirations were all the stronger for being constantly trampled upon by the callous Roman government and equally constantly whipped up by would-be revolutionary leaders. It was a time when almost all Jews of any description looked for God to inaugurate his kingdom, his sovereign rule, and so to vindicate their cause in fulfilment of his ancient promise.

2. Jesus’ message consisted in the announcement that the time of fulfilment had now dawned. The kingdom of God, long awaited, was now at hand. He saw himself, and was seen by his contemporaries, as a prophet, bringing God’s word to his people. But a good part of his ministry was devoted to explaining, in word, symbol and deed, that, although the nation’s aspirations were now at last being met, the fulfilment was not at all as had been expected. Many of the parables are designed to answer the objection (prevalent in modern, as in ancient, Judaism): if the kingdom of God is really here, why is the world still going on as it is? Jesus’ answer is that the kingdom is present like leaven in dough; like a seed growing secretly; like a wedding invitation which ends up with the wrong people coming to the party. His ministry puts into effect the warning of John the Baptist (Mt. 3:9): ‘Do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.’

Thus Jesus called Israel to repent of her nationalist ambition and follow him in a new vision of God’s purpose for Israel. Resistance to Rome was to be replaced by love and prayer for the enemy. Israel’s plight was radically redefined: sin, not Rome, was the real enemy. Jesus’ exorcisms point to God’s healing of his sick Israel, and they consequently belong with the controversy stories (e.g. Mk. 2:1-3:6) as part of his lifelong battle with the forces of evil which came to a climax on the cross (cf. Mt. 4:1-11; 8:28-34; 12:22-32; 27:39-44). His healings of the blind, lame, deaf and dumb, and his calling of the outcasts and poor to enjoy fellowship with himself, all of which hinge on faith as the appropriate response to Jesus, indicate his reconstitution of the people of God (Lk. 13:16; 19:9-10). For those with eyes to see, the ‘resurrection’, i.e. the remaking of Israel, has already begun (Lk. 15:1-2, 24, 32; 16:19-31).

3. Alongside Jesus’ announcement of the (paradoxical) inauguration of God’s kingdom we find a constant warning: If the nation refuses to turn from its collision course with God’s purposes, the inevitable result will be terrible national devastation. Jesus couches these warnings in the standard language of apocalyptic prophecy. Just as Jeremiah had prophesied that the ‘Day of the Lord’ would consist not in the salvation of Jerusalem from Babylon but in her destruction at Babylon’s hands, so Jesus warns that the coming of the kingdom will mean, within a generation, destruction for the nation, the city and the temple that have turned their back on the true purposes for which they had been called and chosen (e.g. Lk. 13:1-9, 22-30, 34-35). These warnings come to a head in the great discourse (Mt. 24; Mk. 13; Lk. 21) in which the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is predicted.

4. In both these elements of Jesus’ ministry we find a. a constant, albeit veiled, self-reference, and b. the seeds of that conflict with the Jewish establishment which led to Jesus’ death. Thus:

a. In Jesus’ welcome of sinners and outcasts, and in his preaching of the good news of the kingdom to the poor, there is the constant implication that to be welcomed by Jesus was to be welcomed by the God of Israel into membership in his true people. The calling of the twelve disciples makes the same point, signifying the renewal of the twelve tribes, with Jesus not as primus inter pares but as the one who calls this renewed Israel into being. He apparently draws the nation’s destiny on to himself, fulfilling in himself the call of Israel to imitate God in the holiness of mercy, not of separation from the world (Lk. 6:27-36), and summoning others to find their true vocation in following him. The title ‘Son of Man’ which he apparently used as his favourite self-designation could have been heard as meaning simply ‘I’ or ‘somebody like me’, but it also carried the implication of the apocalyptic picture in Dn. 7, in which the suffering Israel is seen as the human figure at present in subjugation to the ‘beasts’ (i.e. the foreign nations) and who is then vindicated by God. There is good evidence that this figure, Israel’s representative, was already by the time of Jesus regarded by some as messianic. Thus it is no surprise to find Jesus regarded as Messiah during his lifetime: the title did not, by itself, imply more than ‘Israel’s anointed representative, through whom God is redeeming his people’, although Jesus was engaged in filling this title, too, with fresh meaning. So, too, in Jesus’ warnings to the nation the constant repetition of ‘within a generation’ indicates that the imminent destruction of Jerusalem would come inevitably on the generation that had rejected him: over and above any ideas of specially inspired knowledge, Jesus knew himself to be God’s final word to his people, rejection of which would mean swift judgment (cf. Lk. 23:31).

b. Jesus’ acting out of his announcement of the kingdom met with strong opposition from various groups, particularly from the Pharisees with whom, in other respects, Jesus had much in common. His radical attacks on scrupulous observance of the sabbath and the kosher laws (cleanliness, purity, dietary regulations) were aimed not so much at ‘legalism’ as at the key symbols of Jewish nationalism. They can thus be directly correlated with such actions as the welcome to quisling tax-collectors. Jesus, like Elijah and Jeremiah, was regarded as a traitor to the national cause. At the same time there is good evidence to support the verdict of the gospel writers that the national aristocracy (the Sadducees, who held power as puppets of the Romans) would be alarmed at someone who, regarded as a prophet and herald of the kingdom of God, might fan nationalist sentiment (however far that was from Jesus’ intention).

5. All these elements in Jesus’ ministry come together in the events which, in the synoptic gospels at least, cluster together in the last week of his ministry. He enters Jerusalem in apparently deliberate fulfilment of messianic prophecy. He acts out in symbolic form God’s judgment on the temple which has become the focal point of spurious national ambition. He engages in controversy with Pharisees and Sadducees, pointing to their impending final rejection of him as the climax of Israel’s renunciation of God’s call (Lk. 20:9-19) and hinting that the Messiah might be more than a mere nationalist leader (Lk. 20:41-44). He makes his final predictions of God’s impending judgment on the nation (in characteristically apocalyptic language, often misread as referring to the end of the entire world). He celebrates the Passover with his disciples, investing the occasion with new meaning by pointing forward to his own death, not backward to the exodus, as the true redemption of God’s people. After betrayal by one of the twelve, he is tried on a charge which, like everything else in his life and work, defies separation into ‘religious’ and ‘political’ elements: his words against the temple, his claims to Messiahship, were reemphasized in his final answer to the high priest (Mk. 14:62), claiming that Israel’s destiny, and her long-awaited vindication by God after suffering, was about to be fulfilled in him and, apparently, him alone. He would carry out Israel’s task: and, having pronounced Israel’s impending judgment in the form of the wrath of Rome which would turn out to be the wrath of God, he would go ahead of her and take that judgment on himself, drinking the cup of God’s wrath so that his people might not drink it (Mk. 14:36; 10:45, etc.).

In his crucifixion, therefore, Jesus identified fully (if paradoxically) with the aspirations of his people, dying as ‘the king of the Jews’, the representative of the people of God, accomplishing for Israel (and hence the world) what neither the world nor Israel could accomplish for themselves. To the question ‘Why did Jesus die?’ there are traditionally two sorts of answers: the theological (‘He died for our sins’), and the historical (‘He died because he fell foul of the authorities’). These two answers turn out to be two ways of saying the same thing. In Israel’s final national crisis the evil of the world, ranged against God’s people, and the evil within God’s people themselves, came to a head and, as a matter of history, put Jesus to death. As the story of the exodus is the story of how God redeemed Israel, so the story of the cross is the story of how God redeemed the world through Israel in person, in Jesus, the Messiah.

6. It is within this story, not superimposed upon it from outside, that we can trace the beginnings of that doctrine of incarnation which had already become common property in the early church by the time of Paul (see Phil. 2:5-11). The task to which Jesus knew himself to be called, and to which he was obedient, was a task which, in OT terms, could be done only by God himself (Is. 59:15-19; 63:7-9; Ezk. 34:7-16). Conscious of a vocation appropriate for Israel’s God himself, the human Jesus conducted his life in confident faith and obedience, making implicit and explicit claims which, if not true, would be blasphemous. He spoke and acted with an underived authority. It is in this light that we can understand the phrase ‘son of God’, in the OT a title for Israel and for the Messiah, which becomes in the NT the vehicle of a further truth which includes but transcends both. And the God who can be seen active in the ministry and especially the death of Jesus is precisely Israel’s God, the God of covenant love and faithfulness. The love which apparently contracted uncleanness in contact with the sick and the sinners, but which turned out to be life-giving, is fully unveiled on the cross as God himself takes on the role of the king of the Jews, leading the people of God in triumph against their true enemy.

7. The resurrection (see Resurrection of Christ) is thus God’s demonstration that the claims made during the ministry, which reached their climax on the cross, were true. ‘We had hoped’, said the disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Lk. 24:21), with the implication ‘but we were wrong: he was crucified’. The resurrection demonstrates that they had been right all along, and that the cross, so far from being the failure of Jesus’ messianic mission, was its crowning achievement.

In the light of Jewish expectation a non-physical resurrection would be a contradiction in terms. At the same time, the Jews expected the resurrection of all the righteous dead at the end of time, not that of one man within continuing human history, so that Jesus’ resurrection took its place within the over-all remoulding of the current expectation of God’s kingdom. That which had been glimpsed in his ministry (a renewed world order, and a renewed people of God which all were summoned to join) had been brought to actualization. It was left to Jesus’ followers, empowered by his Spirit, to implement his achievement by means of world-wide mission, exploring its implications in worship and theological reflection.


  • Bammel and C. F. D. Moule (eds.), Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge, 1984)
  • M. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (New York and Toronto, 1984)
  • J. W. Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees (Cambridge, 1973)
  • G. B. Caird, Jesus and the Jewish Nation (London, 1965)
  • A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (London, 1982)
  • B. F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London, 1979)
  • J. M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (London, 1959)
  • E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London, 1985)
  • E. Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (ET, London, 1979)
  • A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (ET, London, 1954)
  • G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London, 1973)