Religion: Who Was Jesus?

The debate among scholars is as heated as the one in Hollywood

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Mack maintains that Galilee in Jesus' day was the "epitome of a cross- cultural mix," with Roman and Hellenistic influences colliding with Jewish thought. The cultural upheaval, he argues, gave rise to questioning cynics, rather like the hippies of the '60s. He theorizes that Jesus' message was concerned with a general malaise that afflicted the land. When he spoke of the coming kingdom of God, he was not warning of the apocalypse but, in true Hellenistic fashion, urging more natural and just relationships among people of all social classes.


In stark contrast to the worldly reformer and sage is the notion of Jesus as a stern prophet who predicted the coming judgment of God. This Jesus, unlike the more secular versions, had a keen sense of his mission and knew that his death would fulfill it. He was clearly influenced by John the Baptist's preaching of repentance and perhaps by the apocalyptic warnings of the Essenes, the Jewish sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some of those who subscribe to this image emphasize the dozens of places in the Gospels where Jesus refers to the forthcoming kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven, in which righteousness and peace would prevail. In some instances he directly relates the role of king to himself, in the most famous passage telling Pilate at his trial that "my kingship is not of this world."

However, as with many matters in New Testament criticism, things are not so simple as they might seem. "Jesus expected a radical transformation of the world and that this would involve the coming of a heavenly figure," says Adela Yarbro Collins of the University of Notre Dame. But, she adds, "Jesus did not believe himself to be this figure." In this liberal interpretation, the disciples experienced Jesus as risen from the dead and became convinced that Jesus himself was the heavenly person who was to come. They then introduced this novel idea into Jesus' teaching.


The stress on Jewish studies among modern New Testament scholars has produced a striking vision of Jesus as a rabbinical genius whose teachings were very much in keeping with the liberal Jewish scholarship of his day. "He represented a humanistic trend in Judaism that was then developing out of the liberal wing of the School of Hillel," argues Israeli Historian David Flusser of the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels, a group of 15 Jewish and Christian scholars. What Jesus sought, says Flusser, was a Judaism purified of resentments and hatred. "He wanted a feeling of love and understanding and identification with one's fellow human beings."

The Jerusalem scholars believe that the Jesus of history is highly accessible once the Greek Gospels have been translated back into Hebrew, the language in which they say the Nazarene preached. "When you read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount ((in Hebrew)), you feel you are right back there, hearing a rabbi speaking," marvels the Jerusalem School's director, David Bivin, a U.S.-born Christian. Thus, he says, "Anything that we can't translate back into Hebrew is suspect for us."

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