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Historical Jesus refers to scholarly reconstructions of the life of Jesus, based on critical methods including critical analysis of gospel texts as the primary source for his biography, along with consideration of the historical and cultural context in which he lived. These reconstructions accept that Jesus existed, although scholars differ about the beliefs and teachings of Jesus as well as the accuracy of the accounts of his life, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.
Since the 18th century, three separate scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during that phase. The portraits of Jesus that have been constructed in these processes have often differed from each other, and from the dogmatic image portrayed in the gospel accounts. The mainstream profiles in the third quest may be grouped together based on their primary theme as apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah and prophet of social change, but there is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait, or the methods needed to construct it. There are, however, overlapping attributes among the portraits, and scholars who differ on some attributes may agree on others.
A number of scholars have criticized the various approaches used in the study of the historical Jesus—on one hand for the lack of rigor in research methods, on the other for being driven by "specific agendas" that interpret ancient sources to fit specific goals. These agendas range from those that strive to confirm the Christian view of Jesus, or discredit Christianity, or interpret the life and teachings of Jesus with the hope of causing social change. By the 21st century the "maximalist" approaches of the 19th century which accepted all the gospels and the "minimalist" trends of the early 20th century which totally rejected them were abandoned and scholars began to focus on what is historically probable and plausible about Jesus.
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Most contemporary scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted. We have no indication that writers in antiquity who opposed Christianity questioned the existence of Jesus. There is, however, widespread disagreement among scholars on the details of the life of Jesus mentioned in the gospel narratives, and on the meaning of his teachings. Scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the Biblical accounts of Jesus, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.
Robert E. Van Voorst states that the idea of the non-historicity of the existence of Jesus has always been controversial, and has consistently failed to convince virtually all scholars of many disciplines. Geoffrey Blainey notes that a few scholars have argued that Jesus did not exist, but writes that Jesus' life was in fact "astonishingly documented" by the standards of the time - more so than any of his contemporaries - with numerous books, stories and memoirs written about him. The problem for the historian, wrote Blainey, is not therefore, determining whether Jesus actually existed, but rather in considering the "sheer multitude of detail and its inconsistencies and contradictions". Although a very small number of modern scholars argue that Jesus never existed, that view is a distinct minority and virtually all scholars consider theories that Jesus' existence was a Christian invention as implausible. This is different from supernatural or miraculous claims about Jesus, which historians tend to look on as questions of faith, rather than historical fact.
The sources for the historicity of Jesus are mainly Christian sources, but there are some mentions also in a few non-Christian Jewish and Greco-Roman sources, which have been used in historical analyses of the existence of Jesus. These include the works of 1st-century Roman historians Josephus and Tacitus.
The Christ myth theory (also known as the "Jesus myth theory" or "Jesus mythicism") is the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament was mythical, although others define it more strictly that Jesus never existed in any form. The thesis that Jesus was invented by the Christian community after 100 CE was first put forward in the late 18th century and then popularised in the 19th century by German philosopher Bruno Bauer who proposed a three-fold argument still used by many myth proponents today:
Although the question of the historicity of Jesus was the subject of 20th century books by British professor G.A. Wells and others, the suggestion that there was no historical Jesus has seen a "massive upsurge" in recent years. A number of books and documentaries promote different perspectives. For example, former Anglican priest Tom Harpur argues that Jesus was not a man, but his spirit lives within us. In his book, On the Historicity of Jesus, historian Richard Carrier presents the evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus. He states that both sides lack a coherent methodology and that historicists have conflated "conjectures with demonstrable facts almost as often as mythicists do."  In his conclusion he proposes that Jesus was a pre-Christian, Jewish celestial being, which was later represented "rhetorically and symbolically in overtly historical narratives" by "some Christian congregations".  Most writers, like former Baptist pastor Robert M. Price, however, are more "agnostic" about the existence of Jesus arguing that events in the Gospels are almost certainly mythical, but allowing that Christianity may have been based on an individual whose followers believed he was the son of God. For example, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in 2006 it is "possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all," and "although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as reliable record of what actually happened in history."  In 2012, he added "the evidence (Jesus) existed is surprisingly shaky."  Similarly, the late Christopher Hitchens stated there is "little or no evidence for the life of Jesus," arguing "the gospels are most certainly not literal truth," their multiple authors "cannot agree on anything of importance," and the "contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars."  While not going so far as to say that a Jesus figure did not exist, Hitchens argues the best argument for the "highly questionable existence of Jesus" are the biblical inconsistencies themselves, explaining the "very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born." 
Despite the debate in popular culture and on the Internet, the position that Jesus did not exist is not held by most professional historians, nor the vast majority of New Testament scholars. Classical historian Michael Grant states that, "Modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory...[It has] again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars."  Other scholars, mostly based in Europe, however, argue their colleagues should remain more open to this possibility and that the debate on the historicity of Jesus is not over.
Despite divergent scholarly opinions on the construction of portraits of the historical Jesus, almost all modern scholars consider his baptism and crucifixion to be historical facts. James Dunn states that these "two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent" and "rank so high on the 'almost impossible to doubt or deny' scale of historical facts" that they are often the starting points for the study of the historical Jesus.
Scholarly agreement on the crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate is widespread, and most scholars in the third quest for the historical Jesus consider the crucifixion indisputable. Eddy and Boyd state that it is now firmly established that there is non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus. Bart Ehrman states that the crucifixion of Jesus on the orders of Pontius Pilate is the most certain element about him. John Dominic Crossan states that the crucifixion of Jesus is as certain as any historical fact can be. John P. Meier views the crucifixion of Jesus as historical fact and states that based on the criterion of embarrassment Christians would not have invented the painful death of their leader. Meier states that a number of other criteria, e.g. the criterion of multiple attestation (i.e. confirmation by more than one source), the criterion of coherence (i.e. that it fits with other historical elements) and the criterion of rejection (i.e. that it is not disputed by ancient sources) help establish the crucifixion of Jesus as a historical event.
Although scholars agree on the historicity of the crucifixion, they differ on the reason and context for it, e.g. both E. P. Sanders and Paula Fredriksen support the historicity of the crucifixion, but contend that Jesus did not foretell his own crucifixion, and that his prediction of the crucifixion is a Christian story. Geza Vermes also views the crucifixion as a historical event but provides his own explanation and background for it.
The existence of John the Baptist within the same time frame as Jesus, and his eventual execution by Herod Antipas is attested to by 1st-century historian Josephus and the overwhelming majority of modern scholars view Josephus' accounts of the activities of John the Baptist as authentic. One of the arguments in favor of the historicity of the Baptism of Jesus by John is that it is a story which the early Christian Church would have never wanted to invent, another criterion of embarrassment. The four gospels are not the only references to the baptisms performed by John and in Acts 10:37-38, the apostle Peter refers to how the ministry of Jesus followed "the baptism which John preached". Another argument used in favour of the historicity of the baptism is that multiple accounts refer to it, usually called the criterion of multiple attestation. Technically, multiple attestation does not guarantee authenticity, but only determines antiquity. However, for most scholars, together with the criterion of embarrassment it lends credibility to the baptism of Jesus by John being a historical event.
Beyond the two elements of baptism and crucifixion, scholars attribute varying levels of certainty to other episodes in the life of Jesus. A well known list of eight possible facts has been widely discussed, but is not subject to universal agreement among scholars.
E.P. Sanders and separately Craig A. Evans state that two other incidents in the life of Jesus can be historical: one, that Jesus called disciples; the other, that he caused a controversy at the Temple. This extended view assumes that there are eight elements about Jesus and his followers that can be viewed as historical facts, four episodes in the life of Jesus and four facts about him and his followers, namely:
Scholarly agreement on this extended list is not universal. N. T. Wright accepts that there were twelve disciples, but holds that the list of their names can not be determined with certainty. John Dominic Crossan disagrees, stating that Jesus did not call disciples and had an "open to all" egalitarian approach, imposed no hierarchy and preached to all in equal terms. John P. Meier sees the calling of disciples a natural consequence of the information available about Jesus.
Scholars generally agree that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who was born between 7 and 2 BC and died 30–36 AD. Blainey writes that Jesus was Jewish in race, culture and religion - the name "Jew" being derived from "Judah", a narrow strip of land along the Eastern Mediterranean, long known as Palestine. Jews, unlike many other peoples of the epoch, believed in only one God, and their Temple in Jerusalem was considered his only shrine. Jerusalem had been captured for the Hebrews around 1000 BCE, but Palestine was invaded by the Romans in 63 BCE, thus by Jesus' time, the Jewish kingdom was under Roman occupation. Despite the presence of a small Roman army, the Jews maintained their unusual culture, traditions and religion: a distinct Jewish world, operating inside the Roman Empire.
Most scholars hold that Jesus lived in Galilee and Judea. The Talmud refers to "Jesus the Nazarene" several times and scholars such as Andreas Kostenberger and Robert Van Voorst hold that some of these references are to Jesus. Nazareth is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian gospels portray it as an insignificant village, John 1:46 asking "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Craig S. Keener states that it is rarely disputed that Jesus was from Nazareth, an obscure small village not worthy of invention. Gerd Theissen concurs with that conclusion. Jerome indicates that Nazareth was used in reference to Old Testament verses using the Hebrew word ne'tser (branch), specifically citing Isaiah 11:1. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that, "The etymology of Nazara is neser, which means 'a shoot'. The Vulgate renders this word by flos, 'flower', in the Prophecy of Isaias (11:1), which is applied to the Saviour. St. Jerome (Epist., xlvi, 'Ad Marcellam') gives the same interpretation to the name of the town."
The Qur'an mentions "Jesus son of Mary" fourteen times, and depicts him as a distinguished prophet, though not the "Son of God", nor does it refer to Nazareth.
Most scholars support the theory that Jesus spoke Aramaic and that he may have also spoken Hebrew and Greek. The languages spoken in Galilee and Judea during the 1st century include the Semitic Aramaic and Hebrew languages as well as Greek, with Aramaic being the predominant language. Most scholars agree that during the early part of the 1st century, Aramaic was the mother tongue of virtually all women in Galilee and Judea.
Most scholars reject that there is any evidence that an adult Jesus traveled or studied outside Galilee and Judea. Robert Van Voorst states that modern scholarship has "almost unanimously agreed" that claims of the travels of Jesus to Tibet, Kashmir or India contain "nothing of value".
The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist places him in the Baptist's era, whose chronology can be determined from Josephus' reference (Antiquities 18.5.2) to the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias and the subsequent defeat of Herod by Aretas IV of Nabatea in AD 36. Most scholars date the marriage of Herod and Herodias, which Josephus relates to the execution of the Baptist by Herod, as AD 28-35, indicating a date somewhat earlier than that for the baptism of Jesus by John.
A number of approaches have been used to estimate the date of the crucifixion of Jesus. One approach relies on the dates of the prefecture of Pontius Pilate who was governor of Roman Judea from 26 AD until 36 AD, after which he was replaced by Marcellus, 36-37 AD. Another approach which provides an upper bound for the year of death of Jesus is working backwards from the chronology of Apostle Paul, which can be historically pegged to his trial in Corinth by Roman proconsul Gallio, the date of whose reign is confirmed in the Delphi Inscription discovered in the 20th century at the Temple of Apollo.  Two independent astronomical methods (one going back to Isaac Newton) have also been used, suggesting the same year, i.e. 33 AD. Scholars generally agree that Jesus died between 30-36 AD.
A number of scholars who study the historical Jesus believe that the life of Jesus must be viewed within the historical and cultural context of Roman Judea and the forces which were in play regarding the Jewish culture at that time, and the tensions, trends, and changes in the region under the influence of Hellenism and the Roman occupation under Ptolemy, from 63 BCE, must be considered. Following the successful Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucids, there was a growth of an apocalyptic view that the world was either in or approaching the End Times, when a messianic saviour would restore the Kingdom of David.
Following the fall of earlier Jewish kingdoms, the partially Hellenized territory was under Roman imperial rule. Beginning in 6 CE, with the confiscation of the territory of the Herodean king Archelaus, Roman prefects were appointed to the territory to maintain order and collect taxes and through a political appointee, the High Priest, control Jerusalem. The imposition of a Roman system of taxation and conflict between the Jews' demand for religious independence and Rome's efforts to impose a common system of governance meant there was continuous underlying tension in the area.
In the Judaic religion of Jesus' day (Second Temple Judaism), the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two significant and opposing power groups. These groups emerged following discontent with John Hyrcanus in the 2nd century BCE. The Sadducees were generally high ranking priests with wealth and nobility who supported the approach of Hyrcanus, which often favored the upper classes and had a strict interpretation of the Torah. The Pharisees (who used a more flexible interpretation of the Torah) were formed as a "separatist" movement and had a somewhat more democratic approach which favored the common people.
The Sadducees had significant power based on their close association with the Jerusalem Temple and by virtue of the seats they held in the Sanhedrin, which was the governing council for the Jews. The underlying theological and philosophical tensions between the Sadducees and the Pharisees and the role of the Essenes were discussed by 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus, e.g. in Antiquities of the Jews book 18. The Book of Acts (23:8) also refers to how the Pharisees believed in resurrection, angels or spirits, while the Sadducees rejected them.
The 21st century has witnessed an increase in scholarly interest in the integrated use of archaeology as an additional research component in arriving at a better understanding of the historical Jesus by illuminating the socio-economic and political background of his age. James Charlesworth states that few modern scholars now want to overlook the archaeological discoveries that clarify the nature of life in Galilee and Judea during the time of Jesus.
Jonathan Reed states that chief contribution of archaeology to the study of the historical Jesus is the reconstruction of his social world. An example archaeological item that Reed mentions is the 1961 discovery of the Pilate Stone, which mentions the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, by whose order Jesus was crucified.
David Gowler states that an interdisciplinary scholarly study of archeology, textual analysis and historical context can shed light on Jesus and his teachings. An example is the archeological studies at Capernaum. Despite the frequent references to Capernaum in the New Testament, little is said about it there. However, recent archeological evidence show that unlike earlier assumptions, Capernaum was poor and small, without even a forum or agora. This archaeological discovery thus resonates well with the scholarly view that Jesus advocated reciprocal sharing among the destitute in that area of Galilee. Other archeological findings support the wealth of the ruling priests in Judea at the beginning of the 1st century.
Jesus grew up in Galilee and much of his ministry took place there. The language spoken in Galilee and Judea during the 1st century amongst the common people was most frequently the Semitic Aramaic tongue. The Hebrew language was spoken by those educated in the scriptures and Greek was spoken by the upper class. Aramaic was the predominant language. Most scholars agree that during the early part of 1st century Aramaic was the mother tongue of virtually all women in Galilee and Judea. Most scholars support the theory that Jesus spoke Aramaic and that he may have also spoken Hebrew and perhaps had some fluency in Greek. James D. G. Dunn states that there is "substantial consensus" that Jesus gave his teachings in Aramaic. In a review of the state of modern scholarship, Amy-Jill Levine stated: "Beyond recognizing that 'Jesus was Jewish' rarely does scholarship address what being 'Jewish' means."
The Galilean Jews had a different social, economic, and political matrix from people living in Judea. There was a difference in their calendar and measurement system, although their halakhic principles were substantially the same. The Galilean dialect of Aramaic was clearly distinguishable from the Judean dialect. The evidence from material culture appears almost identical. There was, however, a difference in social status, with Judeans looking down on Galileans, who were settled in the region predominantly during the Hasmonean period according to archaeological evidence, as poorer and lower status - this is also supported by archaeological evidence. Archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed summarises: "In terms of ethnicity, they shared the same socialised patterns of behaviour, and they were conscious of mutual descent in Judea, dating to the Maccabean Revolt, the occupation of the Diadochoi, the rebuilding of the Temple, Babylonian exile, and beyond. To speak of Galilean Judaism and Galilean Jews is to add an important qualifier, a point Meyer's work on Galilean regionalism stressed, but to juxtapose Galileans with Judeans, and to stress geographical differences at the expense of their common ethnicity, skews their common heritage and obscures their historical connections."
Despite the lack of direct biblical or historical references, from the 2nd century, various theories about the race of Jesus were advanced and debated. By the Middle Ages a number of documents, generally of unknown or questionable origin, had been composed and were circulating with details of the appearance of Jesus. Now these documents are mostly considered forgeries. While many people have a fixed mental image of Jesus, drawn from his artistic depictions, these images often conform to stereotypes which are not grounded in any serious research on the historical Jesus, but are based on second or third hand interpretations of spurious sources.
By the 19th century theories that Jesus was European, and in particular Aryan, were developed, as well as theories that he was of black African descent. However, as in other cases of the assignment of race to biblical individuals, these claims have been mostly subjective, based on cultural stereotypes and societal trends rather than on scientific analysis. For two millennia a wide range of artistic depictions of Jesus have appeared, often influenced by cultural settings, political circumstances and theological contexts. Beyond being Jewish, there is no general scholarly agreement on the ethnicity of Jesus.
Jesus is identified  as the son of a τέκτων (tekton) and in a crowd surmises that Jesus was a tekton himself. Tekton has been traditionally translated into English as "carpenter", but is a rather general word (from the same root that gives us "technical" and "technology") that could cover makers of objects in various materials, including builders. But the specific association with woodworking was a constant in Early Christian writings; Justin Martyr (died c. 165) wrote that Jesus made yokes and ploughs, and there are similar early references.
Other scholars have argued that tekton could equally mean a highly skilled craftsman in wood or the more prestigious metal, perhaps running a workshop with several employees, and noted sources recording the shortage of skilled artisans at the time.  Geza Vermes has stated that the terms 'carpenter' and 'son of a carpenter' are used in the Jewish Talmud to signify a very learned man, and he suggests that a description of Joseph as 'naggar' (a carpenter) could indicate that he was considered wise and highly literate in the Torah.
Debate exists about the existence of Nazareth at the time of Joseph and Jesus, as it was not mentioned in any contemporary source. At best it was an obscure village in Galilee, about 65 km from the Holy City of Jerusalem, which is only later mentioned in surviving non-Christian texts and documents. Archaeology over most of the site is made very difficult by subsequent building, but from what has been excavated and tombs in the area around the village, it is estimated that the population was at most about 400. It was, however, only about six kilometres from the city of Tzippori (ancient "Sepphoris"), which was destroyed by the Romans in 4BCE, and thereafter was expensively rebuilt. Jonathan L. Reed states that the analysis of the landscape and other evidence suggest that in that Jesus and Joseph's lifetime Nazareth was "oriented towards" the nearby city.
There are strong indications of a high illiteracy rate among the lower socio-economic classes in the Roman Empire at large, with various scholars estimating 3% to 10% literacy rates. However, the Babylonian Talmud (which dates from the 3rd to 5th centuries) states that the Jews had schools in nearly every one of their towns.
Geoffrey Bromiley states that as a "religion of the book" Judaism emphasized reading and study, and people would read to themselves in a loud voice, rather than silently, a practice encouraged (Erubin 54a) by the Rabbis. James D. G. Dunn states that Second Temple Judaism placed a great deal of emphasis on the study of Torah, and the "writing prophets" of Judaism assumed that sections of the public could read. Dunn and separately Donahue and Harrington refer to the statement by 1st-century historian Josephus in Against Apion (2.204) that the "law requires that they (children) be taught to read" as an indication of high literacy rate among some 1st-century Jews. Richard A. Horsley, on the other hand, states that the Josephus reference to learn "grammata" may not necessarily refer to reading and may be about an oral tradition.
There are a number of passages from the Gospels which state or imply that Jesus could read. The Jesus Seminar stated that references in the Gospels to Jesus reading and writing may be fictions. John Dominic Crossan who views Jesus as a peasant states that he would not have been literate. Craig A. Evans states that it should not be assumed that Jesus was a peasant, and that his extended travels may indicate some measure of financial means. Evans states that existing data indicate that Jesus could read scripture, paraphrase and debate it, but that does not imply that he received formal scribal training, given the divergence of his views from the existing religious background of his time. James Dunn states that it is "quite credible" that Jesus could read. John P. Meier further concludes that the literacy of Jesus probably extended to the ability to read and comment on sophisticated theological and literary works.
Scholars involved in the third quest for the historical Jesus have constructed a variety of portraits and profiles for Jesus. However, there is little scholarly agreement on the portraits, or the methods used in constructing them.
Despite the significant differences among scholars on what constitutes a suitable portrait for Jesus, the mainstream views supported by a number of scholars may be grouped together based on a number of distinct, primary themes. These groupings reflect the essential feature of each picture and the portraits often include overlapping elements, e.g. a number of scholars whose portraits are not "primarily apocalyptic" still believe that Jesus preached such a message, while others (e.g. Borg and Mack) differ on that issue. There are, however, differences among the portraits within each group. The subsections below present the main views (each supported by several mainstream scholars).
The apocalyptic prophet view primarily emphasizes Jesus preparing his fellow Jews for the End times. The works of Sanders and Casey place Jesus within the context of Jewish eschatological tradition. Allison, on the other hand, does not place Jesus within a specific apocalyptic movement, or as advocating specific timetables for the End Times, but sees him as preaching his own doctrine of "apocalyptic eschatology" derived from post-exilitic Jewish teachings. Ehrman bases some of his views on the argument that the earliest gospel sources (for which he assumes Markan priority) present Jesus as far more apocalyptic than other Christian sources produced towards the end of the 1st century, and contends that the apocalyptic messages were gradually toned down.
While both Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison's portraits of Jesus are primarily apocalyptic, they differ in that while Ehrman aligns himself with the century old view of Albert Schweitzer that Jesus expected an apocalypse during his own generation, Allison sees the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus as a form of asceticism.
The charismatic healer portrait positions Jesus as a pious and holy man in the view of Geza Vermes, whose profile draws on the Talmudic representations of Jewish figures such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle Drawer and presents Jesus as a Hasid. In Borg's view Jesus should be seen as a charismatic "man of the spirit", a mystic or visionary which acts as a conduit for the "Spirit of God". Borg sees this as a well defined religious personality type, whose actions often involve healing. Borg sees Jesus as a non-eschatological figure who did not intend to start a new religion, but his message set him at odds with the Jewish powers of his time based on the "politics of holiness".
This view is supported by scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, F. Gerald Downing and Burton Mack — at times reflecting elements of the perspectives held by some members of the Jesus Seminar when it was active.
In the Cynic philosopher profile, Jesus is presented as a traveling sage and philosopher preaching a cynical and radical message of change to abolish the existing hierarchical structure of the society of his time. This view presents Jesus as a Cynic who carries all he needs in a bag and travels as "one who has nothing and wants nothing" and is thus totally free. In Crossan's view Jesus was crucified not for religious reasons but because his social teachings challenged the seat of power held by the Jewish authorities.
Burton Mack also holds that Jesus was a Cynic whose teachings were so different from those of his time that shocked the audience and forced them to think. Mack does not see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, and views his death as accidental and not due to his challenge to Jewish authority.
The Jewish Messiah profile of N. T. Wright places Jesus within the Jewish context of "exile and return", a notion he uses to build on his view of the 1st-century concept of hope. Wright believes that Jesus was the Messiah and argues that the Resurrection of Jesus was a physical and historical event. Wright's portrait of Jesus is closer to the traditional Christian views than many other scholars, and when he departs from the Christian tradition, his views are still close to them.
Like Wright, Bockmuehl and Stuhlmacher support the view that Jesus came to announce the end of the Jewish spiritual exile and usher in a new messianic era in which God would improve this world through the faith of his people.
The prophet of social change portrait positions Jesus not as an eschatological prophet, but primarily as someone who challenged traditional social structures of his time. Thiessen sees three main elements to the activities of Jesus as he affected social change, his positioning as the Son of man, the core group of disciples that followed him, and his localized supporters as he journeyed through Galillee and Judea. Horsely goes further and presents Jesus as a more radical reformer who initiated a grassroots movement. Kyler's ideas are close to those of Hersely, but have a more religious focus and base the actions of Jesus on covenant theology and his desire for justice.
Elisabeth Fiorenza has presented a feminist perspective which sees Jesus as a social reformer whose actions such as the acceptance of women followers resulted in the liberation of some women of his time. For S. G. F. Brandon Jesus was a political revolutionary who challenged the existing socio-political structures of his time.
Overtones of the main portraits are at times presented by individual scholars, e.g. Ben Witherington supports the "Wisdom Sage" view which avoids the term "prophet" and contends that Jesus never uses the classic forms of a prophet. For Witherington Jesus is best understood as a teacher of wisdom who saw himself as the embodiment or incarnation of God's Wisdom. Bruce Chilton, on the other hand, sees Jesus as a Galilean Rabbi.
John P. Meier's portrait of Jesus as the Marginal Jew is built on the view that Jesus knowingly marginalized himself in a number of ways, first by abandoning his profession as a carpenter and becoming a preacher with no means of support, then arguing against the teachings and traditions of the time while he had no formal rabbinic training.
Robert Eisenman proposed that James the Just was the Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that the image of Jesus of the gospels was constructed by Apostle Paul as pro-Roman propaganda. Alvar Ellegård proposes a theory that is somewhat similar to that of Eisenman. He believes that the Jesus of the Pauline Epistles goes back to the Essene Teacher of Righteousness.
Hyam Maccoby proposed that Jesus was a Pharisee, that the positions ascribed to the Pharisees in the Gospels are very different from what we know of them, and in fact their opinions were very similar to those ascribed to Jesus. Harvey Falk sees Jesus as proto-Pharisee or Essene.
Morton Smith views Jesus as a magician, a view based on the presentation of Jesus in later Jewish sources. Leo Tolstoy saw Jesus as championing Christian anarchism; although Tolstoy never actually used the term "Christian anarchism" in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, reviews of this book following its publication in 1894 coined the term.
A paper suggested that Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul the Apostle may have had some psychiatric conditions associated with psychotic spectrum symptoms due to comparisons with experiences today, however, the paper admits that the study was not aimed to deny the supernatural and was not conclusive on any of them.
Psychiatrists George de Loosten, William Hirsch, William Sargant and chief medical officer of Paris, psychologist Charles Binet-Sanglé, claimed that Jesus had a mental disorder. In August 2012, the Church of England in collaboration with the Time to Change mental health campaign prepared a document arguing that both Jesus and some of the Apostles and Saints may have suffered from mental health problems. The Gospel of Mark (Mk 3,21) reports the opinion of members of Jesus’ family who believe that Jesus "is insane.": When his friends heard it, they went out to seize him: for they said, "He is insane.".
Władysław Witwicki, a rationalist philosopher and psychologist, claims in the comments to his own translation of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark ("Dobra Nowina według Mateusza i Marka") that Jesus had difficulties communicating with the outside world and suffered from multiple personality disorder, which made him a schizothymic or even schizophrenic type. In 1998-2000 Pole Leszek Nowak from Poznań authored a study in which, based on his own history of delusions of mission and overvalued ideas, and information communicated in the Gospels, made an attempt at reconstructing Jesus’ psyche.
In the early church, there were already tendencies to portray Jesus as a verifiable demonstration of the extraordinary. Since the 18th century, scholars have taken part in three separate "quests" for the historical Jesus, attempting to reconstruct various portraits of his life using historical methods. Although textual criticism of Biblical sources had been practiced for centuries, these quests introduced new methods and specific methodologies to determine the historical validity of their conclusions.
While textual criticism (or lower criticism) had been practiced for centuries, a number of approaches to historical analysis and a number of criteria for evaluating the historicity of events emerged as of the 18th century, as a series of "Quests for the historical Jesus" took place. At each stage of development, scholars suggested specific forms and methodologies of analysis and specific criteria to be used to determine historical validity.
The first Quest, which started in 1778, was almost entirely based on biblical criticism. This was supplemented with form criticism in 1919 and redaction criticism in 1948. Form criticism began as an attempt to trace the history of the biblical material before it was written down, and may thus be seen as starting when textual criticism ends. Form criticism looks for patterns within units of biblical text and attempts to trace their origin based on the patterns. Redaction criticism may be viewed as the child of text criticism and form criticism. This approach views an author as a "redactor" i.e. someone preparing a report, and tries to understand how the redactor(s) has molded the narrative to express their own perspectives.
At the end of the first Quest (c. 1906) the criterion for multiple attestation was used and was the major additional element up to 1950s. The concept behind multiple attestation is simple: as the number of independent sources that vouch for an event increases, confidence in the historical authenticity of the event rises.
Other criteria were being developed at the same time, e.g. "double dissimilarity" in 1913, "least distinctiveness" in 1919 and "coherence and consistency" in 1921. The criterion of double dissimilarity views a reported saying or action of Jesus as possibly authentic, if it is dissimilar from both the Judaism of his time and also from the traditions of the early Christianity that immediately followed him. The least distinctiveness criterion relies on the assumption that when stories are passed from person to person, the peripheral, least distinct elements may be distorted, but the central element remains unchanged. The criterion of "coherence and consistency" states that material can be used only when other material has been identified as authentic to corroborate it.
The second Quest was launched in 1953, and along with it the criterion of embarrassment was introduced. This criterion states that a group is unlikely to invent a story that would be embarrassing to themselves. The criterion of "historical plausibility" was introduced in 1997, after the start of the third Quest in 1988. This principle analyzes the plausibility of an event in two separate components: contextual plausibility and consequential plausibility, i.e. the historical context needs to be suitable, as well as the consequences.
While the first quest was dominated by "maximalist" approaches in which most of the gospels accounts were accepted, by the beginning of the 20th century under the influence of Rudolph Bultmann a "minimalist" period began in which beyond his existence, hardly anything about Jesus was accepted as historical. From the 1950s onwards, in the second quest the minimalist approaches faded away, and many scholars held that various elements of Jesus' life can be known as "historically probable" beyond the minimal facts which are historically certain. In the 21st century, although no totally maximalist view is accepted, minimalists such as Price are a very small minority with no academic following and modern scholarly research on the historical Jesus focuses on what is historically probable, or plausible about Jesus.
More recently historicists have focussed their attention on the historical writings associated with the period in which Jesus lived or on the evidence concerning his family. The redaction of these documents through early Christian sources till the 3rd or 4th centuries has also been a rich source of new information.
Bart Ehrman and separately Andreas Köstenberger contend that given the scarcity of historical sources, it is generally difficult for any scholar to construct a portrait of Jesus that can be considered historically valid beyond the basic elements of his life. On the other hand, scholars such as N. T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson argue that the image of Jesus presented in the gospels is largely accurate, and that dissenting scholars are simply too cautious about what we can claim to know about the ancient period.
While in the 1980s and early 1990s scholars had hoped for an emerging consensus on a portrait of Jesus, not only has no consensus emerged, but the scholarly views have diverged and fragmented into a set of irreconcilable portraits. Dale Allison states that to an outsider the portraits of the historical Jesus seem to crisscross each other in a "maze of contradictions" partly because the scholars involved make different assumptions about the nature of the quest. And some previous collaborators have since presented differing portraits, e.g. while active in the 1990s, the Jesus Seminar constructed some portraits of Jesus, which were then superseded by the diverging portraits presented by some of the main scholars in that group, once the members of the seminar went their separate ways, e.g. Borg and Crossan's distinct individual portraits differing on whether Jesus made apocalyptic statements.
Since Albert Schweitzer's book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, scholars have for long stated that many of the portraits of Jesus are "pale reflections of the researchers" themselves. John Dominic Crossan summarized the recent situation by stating that many authors writing about the life of Jesus "... do autobiography and call it biography." Yet, scholars continue to criticize each other's work on the subject, e.g. N.T. Wright has presented a critique of the work of Crossan and discussed the inadequacy of his methods and assumptions in the form of a parody.
John P. Meier wrote that in the past the quest for the historical Jesus has often been motivated more by a desire to produce an alternate Christology than a true historical search. The quest is also said to be too western, too white, too bourgeois, and too male.
The British Methodist scholar Clive Marsh has stated that the construction of the portraits of Jesus as part of various quests have often been driven by "specific agendas" and that historical components of the relevant biblical texts are often interpreted to fit specific goals. Marsh lists theological agendas that aim to confirm the divinity of Jesus, anti-ecclesiastical agendas that aim to discredit Christianity and political agendas that aim to interpret the teachings of Jesus with the hope of causing social change.
John Meier, a Catholic priest and a professor of theology at University of Notre Dame, has also said "... I think a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that people claim they are doing a quest for the historical Jesus when de facto they’re doing theology, albeit a theology that is indeed historically informed ..." Dale Allison, a Presbyterian theologian and professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, too says, "... We wield our criteria to get what we want ..." Biblical scholars have also been accused of having a strong disinclination towards communicating to the lay public things they know, but which would be unsettling to mainstream Christians. According to the historian of religion R. Joseph Hoffmann, a humanist, there has never been "a methodologically agnostic approach to the question of Jesus' historical existence."
The New Testament scholar Nicholas Perrin on the other hand has argued that since most biblical scholars are Christians, a certain bias is inevitable, but he does not see this as a major problem.
Donald Akenson, Professor of Irish Studies, in the department of history at Queen's University, has argued that, with very few exceptions, the historians attempting to reconstruct a biography of the man apart from the mere facts of his existence and crucifixion, have not followed sound historical practices. He has stated that there is an unhealthy reliance on consensus, for propositions, which should otherwise be based on primary sources, or rigorous interpretation. He also identifies a peculiar downward dating creep, and holds that some of the criteria being used are faulty. He says that the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars are employed in institutions whose roots are in religious beliefs. Because of this, more than any other group in present day academia, biblical historians are under immense pressure to theologize their historical work. It is only through considerable individual heroism, that many biblical historians have managed to maintain the scholarly integrity of their work.
The historian and philosopher C. Stephen Evans, a professor at the Baptist Baylor University, holds that the stories told by "scientific, critical historians" are based on faith convictions no less than is the account of Jesus as the Christ the Son of God, an account that he maintains can be reasonably accepted as historically true.
The linguist Alvar Ellegård argued that theologians have failed to question Jesus' existence because of a lack of communication between them and other scholars, causing some of the basic assumptions of Christianity to remain insulated from general scholarly debate. However, the Old Testament scholar Albrektson, while identifying some possible problems, says in response that a great many biblical scholars do practise their profession as an ordinary philological and historical subject, avoiding dogmatic assumptions and beliefs.
Albert Schweitzer accused early scholars of religious bias. Rudolf Bultmann argued that historical research could reveal very little about the historical Jesus. Some have argued that modern biblical scholarship is insufficiently critical and sometimes amounts to covert apologetics.