Who was Jesus really?

For the past few weeks I’ve been discussing this question with my high school theology class. Although most of my students have been brought up in the church, I know they’re going to face challenges to their faith when they go off to college. Many will hear jarring claims from classmates and professors about the “real” Jesus—claims contradictory to the church’s confession of Jesus as the risen Son of God.

So I want my students to be prepared. I want them to know these claims have been around for a long time, as have Christian responses. Despite what many critical scholars claim, there is no contradiction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” In fact, studying Jesus as a historical figure can often strengthen faith. But that requires honestly engaging the critics and evaluating their claims.

Here I will briefly examine five popular alternative theories about Jesus, concluding with some general guidelines for how Christians can respond to them.

1. Jesus the Pagan Myth 

Though this theory has very little support among scholars today, it’s still quite popular on atheist websites (a student is therefore more likely to hear it from a classmate than a professor). The theory claims Jesus never existed as a historical figure. Rather, the stories of his birth, life, death, and resurrection were all myths the early Christians borrowed from pagan mystery religions—such as the cults of Dionysus and Mithras—which allegedly predated Christianity by centuries.

The roots of the Christ-myth theory go back to 19th-century German scholars like David Strauss (1808–1874), who argued the New Testament (NT) is simply a collection of mythical retellings of Jesus’s life, and Bruno Bauer (1809–1882), who made the more radical claim Jesus never existed. The theory gained prominence for a time in the “History of Religions School” at the University of Göttingen, but began to decline during the 20th century as scholars examined the evidence more closely. (Richard Carrier and Robert Price still make this claim today, but even non-Christian scholars like Bart Erhman refute it.) 

The general consensus today is that most of the alleged parallels between Christianity and the mystery religions are either non-existent (sometimes pure fabrications), coincidental, or anachronistic. In fact, there is no evidence pagan mystery religions existed in first-century Israel, and much of our evidence for them elsewhere dates to after the rise of Christianity. So if any borrowing did happen, it was probably the other way around.

2. Jesus the Failed Prophet

This theory, more popular among critical scholars, is based on a certain reading of some of Jesus’s apocalyptic prophecies (e.g., Matt. 16:28; 24:34) in which Jesus predicts God’s kingdom will arrive, accompanied by cataclysmic celestial signs, within the lifetime of his disciples. They argue that since the world did not end within the lifetime of his disciples, he must’ve been deluded and the whole Christian religion based on a mistake. Further, many who hold this view deny Jesus ever claimed to be divine. He may have seen himself as a prophet or perhaps even a king, but certainly not the preexistent Son of God. This means we can trust very little of what the NT tells us about Jesus—unless it seems to make him look bad. (This is known as the “criterion of embarrassment.” See Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity for its strengths and weaknesses.)

The “failed prophet” theory is generally traced to the German scholar Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965). Though Schweitzer was right to draw attention to the eschatological (end-time) character of Jesus’s message, he tended to cherry-pick the evidence, highlighting some prophetic statements while ignoring others—such as Jesus’s claims that God’s kingdom was a present reality (Luke 11:20; 17:20–21) or his own confession of ignorance regarding the timing of his return (Matt. 24:36). Critics following Schweitzer also mistakenly suppose that first-century Jewish apocalyptic language (e.g., the sun being darkened, stars falling from heaven, etc.) must have been intended literally. A comparison with Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17–21), however, shows this isn’t always the case. Jesus was certainly expecting something climactic to happen within his disciples’ lifetime, but it wasn’t necessarily the end of the physical universe. God’s kingdom, as Jesus saw it, defied expectations.

3. Jesus the Moral Philosopher

If the “failed prophet” theory tends to exaggerate Jesus’s apocalyptic expectations, the “moral philosopher” theory tends to ignore them altogether. This portrayal of Jesus as a wisdom teacher promoting timeless moral truths is fairly common among non-Christian laypeople, but among scholars it has often taken the more specific shape of Jesus as “Cynic philosopher.” The term “cynic” in the Greco-Roman world didn’t refer to a generally pessimistic or distrusting person (as we ordinarily use it today), but rather one who renounced worldly goods and social conventions. Critical of the materialism and hypocrisy they saw around them, Cynics would often refuse to groom or bathe, even performing bodily functions in public and earning the nickname “dogmen” (the meaning of cynic in Greek).

The Cynic Jesus theory is usually associated with members of the Jesus Seminar, which reached its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these scholars, such as Burton Mack and John Dominic Crossan, helpfully pointed out a number of similarities between Jesus and Cynic philosophy. However, there are at least two fatal flaws to the portrayal of Jesus as a Cynic himself. First, we have no historical evidence of the presence of Cynic philosophy in Galilee at the time of Jesus (in fact, the evidence we do possess reveals strong Jewish resistance to pagan influence in Galilee). Second, the differences between Jesus and Cynic philosophy far outweigh the similarities. Today, very few in the scholarly world continue to promote this theory.

4. Jesus the Violent Revolutionary

This is an old theory about Jesus that pops up every now and again, but it’s never gained much traction. Its roots go back to the man credited with launching the first modern “quest” for the historical Jesus, German deist Hermann Reimarus (1694–1768). Reimarus argued Jesus never intended to found a new religion or die for the sins of humanity; rather, his message was a call to national liberation from Roman oppression, which ended in failure and crucifixion. This theory was later revived in the 20th century by S. G. F. Brandon (1907–1971), who claimed Jesus was influenced by the first-century Zealot movement. And it’s once again made headlines with Reza Aslan’s 2013 bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House) [review].

As with other alternative portraits of Jesus, this one relies upon a cherry-picking approach to the evidence. It highlights the socio-political aspects of Jesus’s kingdom proclamation while disregarding the spiritual aspects. As NT scholar Darrell Bock points out, Jesus declares the arrival of the kingdom not through amassing an army, but through casting out demons and healing the sick (Luke 11:20). The enemies Jesus targets aren’t the Romans but the spiritual forces that hold the world in captivity to sin. In fact, Jesus’s strongest criticisms in the Gospels are directed not at the Romans but at his Jewish compatriots who expected God to vindicate them based on their nationalistic zeal and rigorous adherence to the Law (Matt. 23:1–36). It’s also worth remembering that one of Jesus’s own disciples was a tax collector—hardly what you’d expect from an anti-Roman revolutionary movement.

5. Jesus the Ahistorical Existentialist

Lastly, a few scholars have given up altogether on the quest for the historical Jesus. For them, determining what Jesus actually said and did isn’t only near impossible, but also beside the point. The purpose of the NT, they say, is to bring us into a one-on-one personal encounter with God, not to communicate certain alleged facts about the past—facts that probably aren’t all that factual to begin with.

This theory goes back to German scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), who promoted a “demythologizing” approach to Scripture. This involved getting past all the imaginative and irrelevant details of the Gospel stories about Jesus and reaching what Bultmann saw as the central truth of Christianity—the kerygma (Greek for “proclamation”) of the gospel. This kerygma was defined in existentialist terms, stressing an individual’s experience of God and a personal call to decision. Like other critical scholars before him, then, Bultmann accepted the wall of separation between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. But whereas other scholars tried to use history to undermine faith, Bultmann tried to insulate faith from history. One could say he treated the NT almost like an ear of corn: history was the husk, kerygma the kernel.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s entirely subjective. If we can’t trust what the NT tells us Jesus said and did, then we’re free to define him however we wish. Who decides what the essence of the gospel is, if not Jesus himself?

Comprehensible, Crucifiable, and Consequential Jesus

Christian scholars have developed several credible ways of responding to these counterfeit portraits of Christ. (See, for example, How God Became Jesus [review] and The Challenge of Jesus). If we study Jesus within his historical context and in light of the facts even non-Christian scholars generally accept to be true, we can arrive at certain conclusions about what he must have been like. Here are three tests any portrait of Jesus must pass to be considered historically plausible (adapted from N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, 131–133). The real Jesus must have been:

  • Comprehensible. Jesus was a first-century Jew from Galilee, and so we should expect his words and deeds to fit within this historical and geographical context. His message must have been understandable and on some level plausible to first-century Jews in order to have gained a hearing among them. This is why it’s so hard to see Jesus as a pagan myth or a Cynic philosopher; these portraits simply don’t make sense in Jesus’s Jewish context.
  • Crucifiable. Jesus must have also said and done things offensive enough to make the Jewish authorities want to kill him. If he only claimed to be a moral teacher, or if he only spoke out against Roman oppression, then it’s hard to see why Jews who shared those same aims and values would want him crucified. There must’ve been something apparently blasphemous about his words and deeds.
  • Consequential. Jesus left such an impact on the early Christians that they were willing to suffer and die for their testimony that he’d risen from the dead. A failed prophet or revolutionary might have attracted lasting admiration at best, but what could’ve happened to make devout monotheistic Jews worship this man after his death?

Though there is no shortage of rival theories about Jesus, Christians need not feel threatened by them. With adequate preparation, engaging with the critics can actually deepen our faith and strengthen our relationship with the Lord who truly walked among us.