The Historical Jesus is the Christ of Faith, Part Four: What’s in a Birth?

Name of Jesus-Bernard of Clairvaux

Image is taken from Ritzema, and Brant, 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Medieval Church.


The common thought of the coming Messiah was that He would be born in the line of David, that He would bring fourth David’s kingdom and that he would be a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6-7 CSB). Again, in Isaiah 11 (CSB), the Messiah is predicted to be of the line of David, a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit,” ruling over the whole world with the Spirit of God, judging righteously. They believed as Jacob prophesied, that the Messiah would rule forever once he comes (Gen 49:10 CSB). Balaam prophesied of the Messiah “[a] star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel” (Num 24:17 CSB). It says in Amos 9:11 (CSB), when Israel was not yet destroyed by the Babylonians, that after the exile God would renew the kingdom of David. Hosea also prophesied of a time of Davidic renewal and restoration (Hos 3:5 CSB). Micah even declared that the Messiah’s coming would be of humbleness (Mic 5:2 CSB). Matthew 1_23 [widescreen].pngIt was Jeremiah who, not only called for a new covenant, he also proclaimed that the coming Messiah would be a righteous king of the line of David (Jer 23:5 CSB). Ezekiel proclaims that the coming Messiah will be the judge (Ezek 21:27 CSB). The Messiah was also seen as a warrior king and priest, which to a people of oppression seemed amazing (Ps 110 CSB). It was, as quoted in Matthew, that Messiah would be known as the Immanuel, born of a virgin (Isa 7:14 CSB).

Why Most Historical Jesus Scholars and Critics do not Touch Jesus’ Birth

Most Jesus scholars do not touch the birth narratives of Jesus because they do not believe them to be historically reliable. Marcus J. Borg (1999, 179), states in his article on the virgin birth, that he does not hold the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke to be true. For him, these narratives are nothing more than literary creations (Ibid). Bart D. Ehrman (2014, 236), in his book on the Christology of Jesus, claims that Jesus’ followers began seeing Him as divine from His resurrection, however, later followers needed to extend this Christology from adoption to pre-birth. Within the Church, some critics and Jesus scholars, are afraid of being seen as heretical if they denounce the virgin birth (Chilton 2000, 5). According to Bruce Chilton (2001, 6-7), Jesus’ birth is simply a legend, wrote down years later to explain how Jesus was conceived; Chilton holds that Mary and Joseph could not help themselves, so they had sexual relations before their allotted time. In the Jewish culture during the Second-Temple, marriage was very specific. An older man married a younger woman of about 12-13 years of age. They had a year of celibate marriage, then they would be allowed to consummate their marriage (Chilton 2000, 5-7). For Chilton (2000, 7), again, states that it was not actually the Bethlehem of Judea, but of Galilee. In other words, for him, the Bible is not historically accurate. In 2007, the Barna Group (2009) did a study on the belief of the virgin birth by Americans that recorded that 75% of adults in America believed in the virgin birth. In 2017, the Pew Reserach (2017) reported that only 66% of adults now believe in the virgin birth.

Borg gives several reasons why not believing the birth narratives is important; it all comes down to the historicity. For Borg, the dating of the narratives is too late, end of the first century, Matthew and Luke do not match on genealogies, narrative, visitors, home of Mary and Joseph, the killing of the babies (as well as Herod’s plotting) and the use of the Scriptures (Borg 1999, 179-181). Borg (Ibid., 181-182) holds to a view that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth, which to make Jesus fit the Messianic prophecy of Micah 5:2 (CSB), they wrote in that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. In an even more, possibly unbelievable, reconstruction of Jesus’ birth, Andries van Aarde (2002, 67-72), in his article on the fatherlessness of Jesus, states that Joseph was not even a historical figure—due to the lack of literature on him, other than in Matthew and Luke. Van Aarde states that, because the Pharisees’ argument of Jesus’ illegitimate birth (as argued in John 8:41 CSB), the early Church needed to make up a reason for Jesus’ fatherlessness, as well as His teaching of God as His Father (van Aarde 2002, 67-72).

Divine Birth’s in the Greco-Roman World

In the Greco-Roman world, the divine did not just become a simple human and retain its divinity. Either the human becomes divine and loses his divinity, or is made semi-divine, by way of birth. Then there are the gods, who are unable to become human. What these gods are capable of doing are adorning humanity like clothing. Unfortunately, the Greeks and Romans did not have actual virgin births (Ehrman 2014, 24). This is because, in the Greco-Roman world, the gods lusted after humans. These gods had their way with women (e.g., in the story of Hercules, Zeus enjoyed his time with Alcmena so much that he made time stand still till he was done), however, in the Jewish, as well as in the Christian, worldview (Second-Temple period as well) that God would never lust after anyone (Ibid). In our beliefs, God has morals, standards, and values. Even though God made Mary pregnant, he did it without any physical violation or fornication.

The Birth of the King

Matthew 1_18 [widescreen]

Much of the conversation surrounding the birth of Jesus revolves around the notion of whether he was virginally conceived or not. Borg (1999, 185-186) states, in his article on the birth of Jesus, that the biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth are not needed to be true to be factual about who Jesus is. Borg is a naturalist, therefore, the miraculous birth of Jesus is unnecessary. In other words, Borg (Ibid., 186) holds that Jesus was “the decisive disclosure of God.” For him, it is ok to hold, theoretically, that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God, but not necessary as history (Ibid). Ulrich Luz (2007), in his commentary on Matthew, states that the Virgin Birth is not historical, as it is, more creedal. Is this all, do we really not need to trust the biblical accounts of Jesus in order to see Him as Lord and God?

The real question, as posed by N. T. Wright (1999, 171), is whether we should see God as a deist would, or as traditional Christianity does? The first thing we must do is to not confuse the virgin birth with the Roman Catholic belief of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma was defined by Pope Pius IX, in 1854, as Mary being freed from Original Sin, “by the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ” (Johnson 2011, 438). The Church has long held a form of sacredness for the mother Mary. However, the second thing to be looked at is the meaning of the English word virgin. The Greek word, parthenos, is literally translated as virgin. However, there is much talk in the critic, secular, and Jewish scholarship that tries to explain that word is derived from the Hebrew word, ‘almah, is actually translated as a young woman (Levine and Brettler 2011). This view of the virgin birth has led to some ridiculous claims. Chilton (2000, 6-7) holds that Joseph and Mary were not able to help themselves and had sex before their Jewish custom allowed them to. Another interpretation, using this logic of the wording, holds to a more midrashic* understanding of Jesus as Moses (Levine and Brettler 2011). A grave problem with this argument is that it ignores the reason for the authors to even put it in their material, especially when the Greco-Roman culture had their own divine birth stories. The best answer to come against these arguments is with the embarrassment, multiple attestations, and Palestinian culture criteria.

Isaiah 7_14 [widescreen]


N. T. Wright gives us the best answer, through embarrassment criteria:

[e]ven assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercly Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk—unless they at least believed them to be literally true (1999, 176)?

What also helps is to know how prophecy worked in the Old Testament. Most of these scholars are committing the fallacy of appealing to ignorance. What they want to say is that because there is no absolute proof that Jesus’ birth was miraculous, so it was not. By stating that Matthew did not understand the prophecy in Isaiah, due to the immediate context of the verse, the prophecy then had nothing, at all, to do with Jesus’ birth. However, Hebrew prophets always had an immediate context, as well as, a future one for all of their prophecies (France 1992,79; Blomberg 1992). In the case of Isaiah, the notion of who the Immanuel will be is given in one of two persons (in the immediate context), Hezekiah or Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Blomberg 1992). Isaiah’s use of the word sign throughout chapters 7 and 8, shows that the context is not just immediate but futuristic, as well (France 1992, 79; Blomberg 1992).  For Luke’s use of mentioning Jesus’ virgin birth is the connection of the Holy Spirit to His conception, as well as His divine echo to the creation of Adam—or as Darrell L. Bock (1994) states, in his commentary of Luke: “[t]he virgin birth is one mark of superiority for Jesus over John the prophet. It makes Jesus totally unique. The only other person to have had such a direct divine intervention in his birth was Adam.”

What the Virgin Birth says about the Historical Jesus as the Christ of Faith

Matthew 121 [widescreen]

It is clear from the evidence of Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ story, as different as they are, that this was no ordinary story. Matthew and Luke both had their own audience, as well as their own sources. No, I do not believe in the different M1s and L1s out there. What I mean, is that Matthew and Luke both draw on obvious familial memories. It is possible that Matthew was able to get his information from Joseph and Luke from Mary. It is also possible that one Jesus’ siblings were able to recount the story to either one, or that Jesus himself told Matthew, and Luke still got his from Mary. We will never know for sure, what we can know is that there is truth behind both stories, they fit our criteria. It would have been embarrassing for Jesus, as well as both Matthew and Luke and their communities to say that they worshipped a god who was born out of wedlock, which would have placed Jesus into a more pagan demigod. Joseph and Mary’s stories sit well within the Palestinian culture of marriage, and the fact that both Matthew and Luke tell of a virgin birth, which both having angelic visitors. There is more than just Luke and Matthew’s accounts, John also makes a reference in his prologue to his Gospel (Oden 2001, 142). Paul also assumes the Nativity in his letters to the Galatians (see also Gal 4:21-31 CSB, where Paul speaks of two births, one to a slave and one to a free woman of which the assumption of Jesus’ virgin birth is made) and the Romans (Ibid., 143-144).  By the middle of the second century, as well as the beginning of the third, the creedal response to heresies of Christ’s birth was becoming foundational (Justin Martyr First Apology XXI, XXIIITertullian On the Flesh of Christ IIIrenaeus Against Heresies 3.21.1; Oden 2001, 134). It must not be stressed enough, that if one is able to deny the miraculous birth of Jesus, then they must also deny the resurrection—of which most critical, liberal, and skeptical scholars do (Oden 2001, 134). The best possible answer to why the virgin birth is important for the study of the historical Jesus, we need to end with a statement made by N. T. Wright:

the God of Israel, the world’s creator, was personally and fully revealed in and as Jesus of Nazereth, I hold open my [Wright’s] historical judgment and say: if that’s what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object (1999, 178)?

Author’s Notes

  • Midrash is a Hebrew word used for Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. It is a methodology, to an extent, still used today for many Jewish rabbis.

Reference List

Barna Group. (2009). “Americans Express Their Views of the Virgin Birth of Christ.” In Barna Group. Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2009. February 19, 2018.

Blomberg, Craig. 1992. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Bock, Darrell L. 1994. Luke. IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Borg, Marcus J. “Meaning of the Birth Stories.” In Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York: Harper San Francisco.

Chilton, Bruce. 2000. Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. New York: Image Books, Doubleday.

France, R. T. 1985. Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. 2011. “Communion of Saints and Mary.” In Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives. Edited by Francis Schussler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin. 431-460. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. 2011. “Virgin Birth.” In Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. Kindle edition.

Luz, Ulrich. 2007. Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7. Edited by Helmut Koester. Rev. ed. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Pew Research Center. 2017. “Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas Are Declining in Public Life.” Pew Research Center. Washington D. C.: 2017. February 19, 2018. file:///home/chronos/u-231d5846a851dcfcb6c745c7e62a1ae38ca8ce62/Downloads/Christmas-Survey-2017-Full-report.pdf.

Ritzema, Elliot, and Rebecca Brant, eds. 2013. 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Medieval Church. Pastorum Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

van Aarde, Andries. 2002. “Jesus as Fatherless Child.” In Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels. Edited by Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, and Gerd Theissen. 65-84. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Wright, N. T. 1999. “Born of a Virgin?” In Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York: Harper San Francisco.



The Historical Jesus is the Christ of Faith, Part Three: What is the Background?

Jerusalem city infograph from Faithlife Study Bible

Jerusalem city infographic from Faithlife Study Bible


Now that the historiography, sources, and methodology are done, and before we are ready to begin our analysis of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we have to understand the complete background of Palestine at the beginning of the century. This will give us all the understanding we need to read through the Gospels to find the historical Jesus. Understanding the Jews, their common and diverse society, their religion, and political hope, and the Greco-Roman world that overshadowed them will allow us to move closer to the historical Jesus. Most importantly, we have to keep in mind, always, that Jesus was Jewish, born a Jew, lived as one, and died as one. We are going to start with a narrative of the epoch known as the Intertestamental Period. Basically, this is the time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. Then we break down the different cultures of the Romans and then move on to the Jewish one. After this, we will be ready to open our Bibles and study the life of Christ as depicted in the Gospels allowing us to find the historical Jesus as the Christ of faith.

From the Babylonian Exile to Roman Rule


Rome in the Mid-First Century Faithlife Study Bible Infograph

City of Rome infographic from Faithlife Study Bible

In 734 BC, the king of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III, sacked a portion of the northern kingdom of Israel, also known as Samaria, and took them off into exile (2 Kg 15:29; 1 Chr 5:26 CSB). Then, in the year 722 BC Shalmaneser, as well as his successor Sargon II, finished the destruction and exile of Israel (2 Kg 17:5-6 CSB). It took the Assyrians three years to sack Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah, with the holy city of Jerusalem and God’s glorious Temple, were allowed to stand. In the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II then completely conquered Judah, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carried off all of its treasures and most of the people (2 Kg 24:12-16; Jr 52:28-30 CSB). Then, something amazing happened, in the year 538 BC, the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to the Holy Land and rebuild their kingdom and Temple (Ezra 1 CSB). Not only did Cyrus allow them to return to build their city and Temple, he also gave back the treasures stolen by the Babylonians (Ezra 1:7-11 CSB). There is only one unfortunate thing, the original ten tribes of Israel in the Northern Kingdom did not return, this is mainly because we do not know what happened to them. Israel proper has been lost to history. The second Temple construction began in the year 536 BC with the rebuilding of the altar (Ezra 3:1-6 CSB). Zerubbabel, the spiritual leader of the Jews at the time, finished his temple in 515 BC (Ezra 6:15 CSB). Under Nehemiah, the Jews rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, 445 BC (Neh 6:15 CSB). For the moment, Judea was still a part of the Persian Empire.

The Persians, however, would come into conflict with the Greeks, only this time not through the Athenians and Spartans, but a single ruler named Alexander the Great. This soon to be emperor was raised in Macedonia and trained under Aristotle, 342 BC. Alexander the Great became ruler of the Kingdom of Macedon in 336 BC. In 334 BC, Alexander took a unified Greece and began his conquest of the Persians (Bruce 1980, 2). Alexander completely defeated Persia within three years, 331 BC, and set up his new capital city in Babylon (Bruce 1980, 2; Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 45).

Alexander the Great's Empire
The Empire of Alexander the Great at its height in 323 BC, image taken from

When Alexander died in 323 BC, his empire, which stretched from Greece, through the Middle East (including Egypt), portions of Northern India, and as far east as the Himalayas, was divided between his generals, Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigonus Cyclops (Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 45). Ptolemy took Egypt and most of Northern Africa, Antigonus Cyclops took Asia Minor and Palestine, and Seleucus confiscated the largest portion from Mesopotamia to India (Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 45; Bruce 1980, 2). Between the years 322-301 BC, these generals battled each other over the boundaries of their dynasties (Ibid). Judea came under the Ptolemies in 301 BC, until the year 198 BC when Seleucids took it from them (Ibid). Then, there came a revolt in Palestine, known as the Maccabean Revolt, 166-160 BC. At the same time, the Romans defeated the Macedonians in the Fourth Macedonian War of 150-148 BC. During this time, Israel begins its Hasmonean Dynasty, 141-63 BC. In the year 31 BC, Egypt collapses to the mighty power of the Roman Republic at the Battle of Actium, bringing an end to Alexander’s successor kingdoms. In ca. 753 BC, the eternal city, Rome was founded. By 509 BC, Rome becomes a republic. From 59-53 BC, The great Triumvirate (rule by three), which consisted of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus rules over the Republic. In 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, which began a civil war where, in 44 BC he was named dictator for life, as well as assassinated. A second Triumvirate was created, in 43 BC, which consisted of Octavian—later taking on the title of Augustus, which means “revered,” “majestic,” or “worthy of honor”—Antony, and Lepidus (Wright 2011, 29). In 27 BC Octavian takes the title of Augustus, making himself the first Emperor of Rome. Interestingly enough, Octavian actual took on the same title as Julius Caesar, dictator for life, to defend the Republic; once he defeated his enemies, Octavian returned the title to the Senate and “restored” the Republic back to them, upon which they declared Augustus the emperor (Horsley 2003, 20). Finally, in AD 6, Judaea became a province, territory, of Rome.


Greco-Roman Culture

Once Alexander conquered the, then, known world in 331 BC he brought a certain culture with him (Wright 1992, 152-153). This culture is what scholars call Hellenism (Ibid). Along with this culture was a new language or one could argue a new lingua franca—Greek—one that would not be overcome till the Arab conquest in the seventh-century (Ibid). Two other things came with Hellenism, Platonism (a dualistic Greek philosophy) and their vast religious system (Ibid). In the year 63 BC, General Pompey (Latin name, Gnaeus Pompeius), entered the Temple in Jerusalem, walked all the way into the Holy of Holies (the area in the Temple where God’s presence resided), marking the Jews’ first, technical, interaction with the newest world power—Rome (Bruce 1980, 12; Horsley 2003, 20). Once Pompey stepped foot into Palestine, he brought with him a newer version of Hellenism, Greco-Romanism, Hellenism 2.0. What Rome offered, especially after Augustus became emperor, is known as the Pax Romana, or the peace of Rome.


The Pax Romana was not that there was simply peace, there were still soldiers stationed in Syria, however, it was much more. N. T. Wright, in his first volume on the Christian Origins and the Question of God series, states:

It meant no extra war-levies, no troops marching through the land en route for somewhere else, no soldiers billeted on villages. It meant that trade and travel could thrive, that communications were as good as they had ever been in the ancient world…It meant that there was a unified system of justice which prided itself on its high standards, so that in theory at least one was not at the mercy of local officials who might or might not be open to inducements: a creaky system, perhaps, but it was at least de jure in place (Wright 1992, 153-154).

For Rome to have accomplished this expansion of communication, along with commerce, it needed good roads, as well as a clear maritime pathway. It was Pompey who cleaned the seas of their pirates (Bruce 1980, 9; Wright 1992, 153-154). Rome built massive highways all across her empire, of which brought commerce, literature, mail, philosophies, and religions of, and to, all of its dominions (White 2004, 41).

Ruins of Ancient Corinth Faihtlife Photos

Ruins of Ancient Corinth taken from Faithlife Study Bible


Rome’s peace was kept with military might (Wright 1992, 154). It was through the elimination of the pirates that Rome showed its use of peace (Horsley 2003,19). Though war had finished, after decades of two different civil wars, the newly formed Empire, kept most of her armies out of major cities and only stationed them on the borders as more of a deterrence (Ibid.,, 22). Basically, Rome was an empire of warriors, holding to conquest and victory as being highly lauded (Ibid., 26). Rome also brought about high taxes, which the people also had to pay their localities their shares too (Wright 1992, 154). Rome also imposed her religion upon everyone in the empire, except the Jews were able to get a pass by allowing themselves to be sacrificed for the worship of their God (Wright 1992, 154; Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 14.10.8, 20-24; 18.3.1).


Rome’s religion was vast, even more so than under any of the Greek dynasties. Rome had those who worshipped the traditional pantheon of deities (ie., Zeus and the rest of the Greek mythical gods and goddesses), there was also the worship of various local deities (eg., Roma in Rome or Diana/Artemis in Ephesus), as well as the mystery cults of Isis and Mithras (Ibid). All throughout the Roman Empire, polytheistic belief was visible through temples, statutes that cluttered forums, various altars, and poets verbally citing mythological fairy tales, along with temple prostitution, and various festivals and rituals considered to be a virtue of a citizens’ civic and social responsibilities (Brown 1997, 85; Wright 1992, 154; White 2004, 49). Emperor worship was not very pronounced during Jesus’ life, mainly because Augustus began it, especially since Romans in the western portion of the empire did not believe it orthodox to call oneself a god while still alive (White 2004, 49-50; Brown 1997, 86; Horsley 2003, 22-24). What the normal citizen usually did, at least for the first few emperors, was to offer sacrifices to the statue of Roma, the goddess personification of Rome (Ibid). This form of worship was more of loyalty and fidelity to the empire than actual belief in the emperor being a god on earth (Ibid). Augustus, along with every emperor after him, was called the high priest —pontifex maximus (Wright 2011, 29). 

Second-Temple Judaism


Herod's Temple from Faithlife Infographics

Infographic of Herod’s Temple taken from Faithlife Study Bible

All throughout the Old Testament, God had promised His people (the Jews) that they were heading to a very specific goal (Wright 2011, 31-32). History had told them that, though they had made various mistakes, and a few setbacks, God was still in control and leading them along the way (Ibid). To an extent, there was a common Judaism, however, it should not be mistaken that it was still a very diverse belief system, with different groups that had their own take on the meaning of the story told from the Old Testament. Ever since Israel could remember, their God created the world, established a way out when Adam and Eve sinned, delivered them from the Egyptian enslavement, gave them their Temple, a king, and a possible future as the light to the nations (Ibid., 33-34). Then, suddenly, in one moment, all of it was gone. Babylon had come, destroyed their holy Temple and city, and taken into exile again. The author of Psalm 137 recalls the pain of remembering their great city of Zion in the foreign land of Babylon, crying when asked to sing to them of the city of Zion. However, and this is very important, Israel had been back, Zion and the Temple were rebuilt, yet they did not feel like they were actually back, they were still in an exile (Wright 2011, 35). This is the major part of the common Judaism that all the different sects held. There were a few other parts that made up shared belief in the Judaism of the Second-Temple period. According to E. P. Sanders (2011,19-23), in his article on common Judaism, states that all Jews gathered in fellowship in the synagogues, observed the Sabbath, kept dietary laws, and paid tributes to the Temple. Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz (2011, 2), in their article on common Judaism, states that the four beliefs all Jews held were: a belief in the God of Israel; an acceptance of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) “as revealing God’s will;” observance of the Mosaic law; and “they identified themselves with the history and fate of the Jewish people.” Again, Sanders (1993, 33-34) sums up the main beliefs of all the Jews during this period: belief and worship of God (monotheism), election of Israel (covenant nomism), observance of the Mosaic law, and (as he states) “repentance, punishment, and forgiveness” (ie., cult, or practice, of the Temple).


Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes


As we have seen, there is a commonness to the belief system in Second-Temple Judaism, however, there were various sects, or groups, at large in the world of Palestine under the Romans. Josephus (Antiquities 13.5.9; Wars of the Jews 2.8.2) tells us that there were three sects, the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. He continues to tell us that the Sadducees do not believe in fate and are extremely more loyal to their own sect than to the others (Ibid). This sect did not believe in the resurrection, or any kind of afterlife, as well as disapproving in the traditions of the Pharisees (Sanders 1993, 47; Josephus Wars of the Jews 2.8.14). Along with not believing in the resurrection, the Sadducees also rejected the belief of angels, demons, and did not actually accept the belief of a coming messiah (Limbaugh 2017, 24; Josephus Wars of the Jews 2.8.14). It is likely that the Sadducees were from the line of the Zadokite Temple priests, which branched out during the time of the Maccabean revolt, 166-160 BC, eventually becoming compromised with the Hellenized rulers of Judea (Brown 1997, 76). After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Sadducees seem to disappear off the map of Judaism (Barrett 1987, 157-158).


Josephus tells us that the Pharisees believed in fate, that it controlled all of humanity, that this fate was willed by God (Josephus Antiquities 13.5.9; Wars of the Jews 2.8.14). The Pharisees were known for their exceptional skill in interpreting the Scriptures, their traditions, and their belief in an afterlife—full of rewards and punishments (Sanders 1993, 44; Brown 1997, 77). The meaning of the word, Pharisee, means to separate (Limbaugh 2017, 23; Jeremias 1975, 246). They are believed to be descendants of the Hasidim, from the period of the Maccabean revolt, who wanted to separate from the corrupted, Hellenized, priests, and Hasmonean rulers (Limbaugh 2017, 23). Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees did believe in a coming messiah (Ibid). We can say, safely, that this group was part of the upper class during the Second-Temple era (Jeremias 1975, 246). Pharisaism eventually came out on top after the Jewish War of AD 66-70 and became the modern day Rabbinical Judaism.

Most scholars hold to a belief that the community at Qumran, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were Essenes (Sanders 1993, 46). This group was separated into two groups, laymen and priests (Ibid). When the Hasmoneans came into power, ca. 142 BC, they removed the original Zadokite priests, of which caused them to leave Jerusalem and form their own group (Ibid). The Essenes were just like the Pharisees, only one thing was different, aside from creating their own community and not giving into marriage, they had their own writings that were separate from the Bible, studied them vigorously, and were extremely more strict than the Pharisees (Sanders 1993, 46-47; Josephus Wars of the Jews 2.2-13). The Essenes also rejected the authority of the Temple at Jerusalem, this is due to their view that it became corrupted (Limbaugh 2017, 25). The Essenes did believe in a coming messiah, however, they believed that there would be two separate ones, a kingly and a priestly one, of which they thought he would come for them only (Ibid).

Hope for the Messiah 

Most people have heard the word Messiah, or even its Greek counterpart Christ. Yet, not many really know what the word actually meant. Sure, today we understand the meaning of a messiah to be one who came to save, and for those of us who went to Church, or took some ancient and medieval survey courses in college, know the word to literally mean the anointed one. However, this word had much more meaning to it than just that. This word is thoroughly Jewish in context, as well as meaning. L. Michael White (2004, 14) states that the notion of the messiah was “a king like David of old, reborn to lead the nation of Israel.” It must be made mention that most Jews in the Second-Temple period did not believe the coming messiah to be divine (Wright 1999, 74). As N. T. Wright (1999, 75), in his book on the historical Jesus, states, Jews at the time of the Second-Temple did not have a single, unified vision of a messiah. We saw this earlier with the separate groups (ie., Pharisees sought a kingly and priestly messiah, the Sadducees had no belief in one, and the Essenes thought there would be two, a king and a priest). However, they did hold that God would be their King, that He would rule them in a Theocracy (Wright 1999, 74-77; Wright 2011, 40-43; Wright 1992, 302). To Israel, the choice of David, by God, to be King meant that He was truly in charge, working through David in favor of Israel (Wright 1999, 74-77; Wright 2011, 40-43; Wright 1992, 302). All of this led to one full understanding of the concept of a messiah for Israel. Essentially, the Jews believed that God would raise up a messiah, restore His kingdom, rebuild the Temple, and deal justice to the Gentiles who oppressed them (Limbaugh 2017, 28; Wright 1999, 74-77; Wright 2011, 40-43, Wright 1992, 302). This, in a nutshell, is what Israel had been expecting during the Second-Temple era. As we continue, in the next post, we will see how Jesus did not fit into the mold of Israel’s expectation of the messiah, nevertheless, He was the true Messiah. 


Reference List

Barret. C. K. 1987. New Testament Background: Selected Documents. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Brown. Raymond E. 1997. Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday.

Bruce, F. F. 1980. New Testament History. New York: Galilee Book, Doubleday.

Elwell, Walter E. and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Horsley, Richard A. 2003. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Jeremias, Joachim. 1975. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Limbaugh, David. 2017. True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels. Washington D. C.: Regnery Publishing.

McCready, Wayne O. and Adele Reinhartz. “Common Judaism and Diversity within Judaism.” In Common Judaism: Explorations in Second-Temple Judaism, edited by Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz. 1-10. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  

Sanders, E. P. 2011. “Common Judaism.” In Common Judaism: Explorations in Second-Temple Judaism, edited by Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz. 11-23. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  

_______. 1993. Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.

White, L. Michael. 2004. From Jesus to Christianity. New York: Harper San Francisco.

Wright, N. T. 1999. Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

________. 1992. New Testament and the People of God. Vol. 1. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

________. 2011. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. New York: Harper One.

The Historical Jesus is the Christ of Faith, Part Two: Why the Sources are Important


Searching for the Historical Jesus needs to start somewhere, but that pinpoint somewhere has been hard for some scholars. First off, Jesus left no actual writings, unless you count the letter that Eusebius claims Jesus wrote to a ruler named Abgarus (Eusebius, Church History 1.13.9). There is no actual copy of this letter, so it is hard to believe that it is factual. However, it is possible to believe that Jesus did know how to read and write (Luke 4:17-21; John 8:6 CSB). Some critics, along with other scholars, have a hard time using the Gospels as primary sources. Therefore, it is necessary to start outside of the Bible for proof of Jesus, if the Gospels are to be taken as reliable and factual. The Roman historian, Tacitus (c. AD 55/56–c. 118), spoke of Jesus in his Annals (15.44):

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Another source is found by a Greek satirist, Lucian (c. AD 115–200), who wrote of Jesus:

It was now that he came across the priests and scribes of the Christians, in Palestine, and picked up their queer creed. I can tell you, he [Jesus] pretty soon convinced them of his superiority; prophet, elder, ruler of the Synagogue–he was everything at once; expounded their books, commented on them, wrote books himself. They took him for a God, accepted his laws, and declared him their president. The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day,–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account (Death of Peregrin, par. 11).

Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian and a general during the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70, recorded:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquity of the Jews 18.3.3).

So, there is plenty of evidence outside of the Bible that states that Jesus existed. With that, we can now begin our understanding of the Gospels.

What are Sources?

Historians, as well as theologians, use a wide variety of sources. These sources are broken down into three parts: primary, secondary, and tertiary.  Primary sources are, possibly, the most important ones that are used. They are called primary because they are the first ones used; in other words, primary sources were written by the people in the time period that is under investigation (e.g., in our research the Gospels tell us about Jesus, as a primary source, because they were written in the time shortly after he lived). Secondary sources are those that are written by historians, as well as theologians, using the primary sources (along with other secondary sources). These sources promote original research done by the historian or theologian in that time period. Tertiary sources use only the secondary ones, give a complete background on schools of thought, arguments, or discussions in regards to the time period (these are dictionaries, encyclopedias, and/or textbooks).


P52: Portion of the Gospel of John (dated between 90-125 AD)

P52: Portion of the Gospel of John (dated between 90-125 AD) from

What are the Gospels?

The Gospels are our primary sources (of which we will look at all four of the canonical). We can safely say that the canonical Gospels are primary sources because of the dating of them. Now, this is where scholarship disagrees with itself. There are some who hold to late datings for each of the Gospels, while there are some who hold to an earlier dating for the texts, and then, there are those who sit somewhere in the in middle for the dates. F. F. Bruce (1981, 7), in his book on the historicity of the New Testament, has dated the Gospels as so: “Mark around AD 64 or 65, Luke shortly before 70, and Matthew shortly after 70;” the only date that Bruce does not attribute is to the Johannine materials. Some scholars place Mark’s Gospel as later than AD 70 (Powell 1998, 48; Chilton and Good 2011, 108; Theissen 2003, 96;* Brown 1997, 164; Donahue 2002, 46). As for Matthew, scholars place his date to be AD 80-100 (Powell 1998, 74; Chilton and Good 2011, 109; Theissen 2003, 102; Brown 1997, 217, Luz 2007, 59). Luke is believed to have been written around the same time as Matthew’s, AD 80-100 (Powell 1998, 98; Chilton and Good 2011, 113; Theissen 2003, 109; Brown 1997, 274). As for John, it is thought his Gospel was written around AD 90-100 (Powell 1998, 126). A few scholars hold to a later date for John (AD 100-120), even with the dating of P52 (a portion of John 18) to between AD 80-90 (Theissen 2003, 148; Brown 1997, 376). For us, and our research here on this blog, we hold to earlier datings for the Gospels.

Holding to this view gives more attestation to a better historicity and authenticity of the Gospels. Starting with Mark, we are going to date it to around the mid AD 50s, mainly because Luke wrote his Gospel around AD 60 (we can hold safe to this because Luke was written before Acts, which was written around the time of Paul’s death, possibly before then since there is no mention of it in the book), Matthew sometime between AD 60-70, also since there is no real account of the destruction of the Temple mentioned, and John’s Gospel to around AD 70-80, mainly because of P52 which is a portion of a copy of the Gospel of John dating around AD 90-100 (Limbaugh 2017, 99-104, Blomberg 1992, 40; Bock 1996).

Gospel as a Genre

The actual word, gospel, comes from the middle English word Godspell, which comes from the Koine Greek, euanggelion, which is translated as good news. However, as much as this word does mean the good news of Jesus, His life, death, and resurrection, the word is also used as the genre of Jesus literature. As we study who the Historical Jesus is, we need to understand the meaning of the literature about Him, from His time period. According to Bruce Chilton and Deirdre Good (2011, 91), the word gospel, through its Aramaic use (besorta’), is best understood as a message of victory, or simply victory. They quote the Targum of Isaiah 52:7, as their proof text: “How beautiful upon the mountains of the land of Israel are the feet of him who announces victory, who publishes peace, who announces good victory, who publishes redemption, who says to the congregation of Zion, The Kingdom of your God is revealed (quoted in Chilton and Good 2011, 91; emphasis is their own). The best way to understand the Gospels, as a genre, is in the literature of ancient biographies (Powell 1998, 6-7; Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 72). Modern-day biographies tend to focus on a chronological note, often leaving information for the readers to look up more on the individual being written about (Ibid., 7). For the Gospels, this was not so, however, there are two that depict his birth to his resurrection (though they do not agree about what happens chronologically in between), one that moves from his baptism to his death (with a later rendition of his resurrection, which I hold to it being a part of the oral history and was added later into the text), to one that starts with prehistory and ends with his resurrection with a more theological structure than a chronological one.

Two-Source HypothesisThat the Gospels were seen as biographies of Jesus of Nazareth by its first audience is not the only way that they were presented by the authors (Powell 1998, 6-8; Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 72). Basically, there was a real Jesus, who lived, died, and even rose again. His story was quickly told by his disciples as a kerygma, which is a Greek word meaning “proclamation” (Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 70). This is what historians would typically call oral history/tradition. These are the stories of a community carried down from one generation to the next. Some scholars tend to call it the kerygma, the message of the early church in regards to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (Ibid).  Within these Gospels are two separate sources, as supposed by some scholars—oral tradition/kerygma and the logia, sayings of Jesus (Theissen 2003, 27-28). Two-Gospels%Griesbach HypothesisScholars take this even further into what is labeled the Synoptic Problem and the Two-Source Hypothesis. Without getting too technical, the Synoptic Problem relies on the way Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate to each other, meaning scholars noticed that there are a lot of points of comparison within these three Gospels, which led them to question why. The Two-Source Hypothesis is one major answer to the question of the Synoptic Problem (Powell 1998, 16-17). This hypothesis argues that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as their structure, and then a source known as Q, short for the German word Quella which means source.  There are arguments for and against this, of which there is one known as the Two Gospel Hypothesis—also known as the Griesbach Hypothesis (Powell 1998, 19). This hypothesis holds that Matthew wrote his Gospel first (of which the early church held this thought for a long time), which Luke used to make his version, followed by Mark using both and shortening them into his smaller Gospel (Ibid).  A final way of answering the Synoptic Problem came through an extended version of the Two-Source Hypothesis, known as the Four-Source Hypothesis (I know, genius naming going on here). The way the Four-Source Hypothesis works is with starting as the Two-SourceFour-Source Hypothesis Hypothesis, only there were sources within Matthew and Luke that are not shared with either of these two Gospels, which are separate from Mark and Q (Powell 1998, 16). For Matthew, it is known as M1 and for Luke, its an L1 (as shown in the diagram). However, as Luke has shown in his opening to his Gospel, the authors did do their own investigation and research into the Gospels, Mark using Peter, Luke using other Gospels and eyewitnesses, Matthew and John using their own memories. It is also possible that each Gospel was more than likely written in regards to helping their own communities, yet keeping the truth of Jesus intact. We must understand these theories behind the sources of the Gospels if we are going to understand our own quest to find the historical Jesus and link Him to the Christ of faith.

The Methodology

The first thing, as Darrell L. Bock (2012, 12-13), in his book, Who is Jesus?, is to speak in corroboration, or “make a corroborative case for the historicity of the accounts…[of] what Jesus said and did.” In order to do this, we must first follow the “criteria of authenticity” (Ibid). Again, as Bock (2012, 13) says, this first rule “test[s] whether we can show a text to have its roots authentically in the actual events of Jesus’ life.” With this understanding, we have to follow a very specific methodology if we are to piece together the Gospels’ understanding of Jesus, of which we can then bridge the massive gap of the Historical Jesus with the Christ of faith. These methods are Multiple Attestation, Dissimilarity, Embarrassment, Criterion of Rejection and Execution, Coherence, Aramaic and/or Hebrew Traces, Palestinian Environment, Inherent Ambiguity, and finally, Historical-Cultural Plausibility (Bock 2012, 16-25). The idea of multiple attestation, as Bock (2012 18), in his book on finding the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, states that “if a saying, teaching, or theme is attested in multiple sources, then it has a better chance of being authentic…going back to authentic events in the life of Jesus.” This will also be used with the forms (ie., miracle stories, parables, pronouncements, etc.) within the sources (Ibid., 19). Dissimilarity is where a possible saying or event does not comply with either the Second Temple Judaism nor the early Church, making it authentically connected to Jesus (Ibid., 19-20). Embarrassment is when a particular story about Jesus, in the Gospels, is seen as being too embarrassing to have been made up. Again, Bock (2012, 21), in his book Who is Jesus?, says “[t]he embarrassing point in the story would ring true because it was a real part of the event.” A good example is that Jesus was crucified as a criminal, where it is embarrassing for our major leader and God to be put to death for a crime (Ibid). The criterion of rejection and execution, again as Bock (2012, 21) puts it, is “how Jesus was rejected by Jewish authorities and crucified by the Romans” making it possibly authentic. Coherence is where something is seen as coherent with the already authenticated source (Ibid., 22). Aramaic and/or Hebrew traces is where anything connected to something Aramaic or Hebrew is authentic to the source (Ibid). Palestinian environment is when the text meets with the culture, society, and life of first-century Palestine, making it authentic (Ibid., 23). Inherent ambiguity is an argument that states that if something about Jesus was made up by the early Church, it would have been extremely clear and not vague or ambiguous (Ibid). Historical-cultural plausibility is when something is made authentic it must fit into a Second Temple Jewishness of the first-century and still be influential on the early Church (Ibid., 24). These are the methods of which we will be using to link the Historical Jesus to the Christ of faith.

Author’s Notes

*Bruce Chilton and Deirdre Good (2011, 108), in their intro to the New Testament, as well as Gerd Theissen (2003, 96), believe that a date after AD 70 is more plausible than before it, which they gather because of the language of the destroyed temple in Jesus’ prophecy. It needs to be stated that just because Jesus made a prophecy does not mean that the authors of the Gospels put those words in His mouth in their writings. Chilton and Good hold to a theory of naturalism, meaning that nothing miraculous is possible, which goes for prophecies.

Reference List

Blomberg, Craig. 1992. Matthew. Vol. 22. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Bock, Darrell L. 2012. Who is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. New York: Howard Books.

________. 1996. Luke. IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Brown, Raymond E. 1997. Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday.

Bruce, F. F. 1981. New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Chilton, Bruce and Deirdre Good. 2011. Studying the New Testament: A Fortress Press Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.


Donahue, John R., and Daniel J. Harrington. 2002. Gospel of Mark. Edited by Daniel J. Harrington. Vol. 2. Sacra Pagina Series. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

Elwell, Walter E. and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Limbaugh, David. 2017. True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels. Washington D. C.: Regnery Publishing.

Luz, Ulrich. 2007. Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7. Edited by Helmut Koester. Rev. ed. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Powell, Mark Allan. 1998. Fortress Introduction to the Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.


Theissen, Gerd. 2003. Fortress Introduction to the New Testament. Translated by John Bowden. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.