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Historical Jesus Theories

The purpose of this web page is to explain and explore some of the theories offered up by contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus and the origins of the Christian religion. Issues include the nature of the historical Jesus, the nature of the early Christian documents, and the origins of the Christian faith in a risen Jesus Christ. An attempt has been made to include historical Jesus theories across the spectrum from Marcus Borg to N.T. Wright and to describe these historical Jesus theories in an accurate and concise way.

The authors are listed in alphabetical order. For convenience, the authors are also listed by the general view that each has on the historical Jesus. Much information is lost when a person's view is reduced to a slogan, and even scholars placed under the same rubric have different views on the historical Jesus. The information on this web page is no substitute for reading what these writers have to say. The recent publications of each writer on the historical Jesus are indicated, with links to to view reader reviews and buying information. Online articles by or about the author are also listed. The editor's favorites are shown in pictures on the right-hand side, and these titles are recommended for further reading on the historical Jesus.

Study of the historical Jesus has never been as intense as it is in the present, and with this resource the reader can quickly get a feel for the countours of the field and find additional resources with which to come to his or her own conclusions on the historical Jesus.

Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ

Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past

Jesus the Hellenistic Hero

Jesus the Revolutionary

Jesus the Wisdom Sage

Jesus the Man of the Spirit

Jesus the Prophet of Social Change

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Jesus the Savior

Please enjoy exploring the varied views of the historical Jesus offered up by these authors through the links above. The rest of this page will make some comment on the titular groups in which I have categorized the authors' theories.

There are two types of "Jesus the Myth" theories prevalent in contemporary literature, that of the "Heavenly Christ" and that of the "Man of the Indefinite Past." What I term the "heavenly Christ" school posits that there is a subset of early Christian literature that regards Jesus as a being whose salvific activities took place in a realm that is not the very same as our own, the world that puts a 30-year-old man on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem on the order of a man keeping order in the city of Jerusalem. Instead it pictures the activity taking place on a heavenly plane of existence, somewhere between the earthly and the divine, and it claims analogy to this practice in other Mediterranean cults offering people other-worldly hope. They argue that Christ was later given a biography on earth, either as a fictionalization of the heavenly type or as a more concrete expression of the faith of a community that had started to regard Christ as a physical person. Before dismissing this transformation as too fanciful and the original as too outlandish, consider that you might be speaking at cross-purposes, as a cult with claims that some people have a difficult time understanding might evolve into a form more palateable to everyone's mind. Moreoever, there is real evidence of a form of Christianity that regarded Christ as a non-physical being in the Gnosic movement, so while this may not have primacy, it does have attestation in our evidence.

If you view the theory of "Heavenly Christ" as taking place over three stages — first Christ is a being in heaven, then people start to believe he lived on earth, then there is a more concrete story about Christ — you can just lop off the first leg of this sequence in order to get the idea offered by the writers who hold to the "Man of the Indefinite Past" theory. Some believe that the stories about Jesus began about a different, older personage in time, which history has forgotten (even though they have their guesses). Others believe that the stories about Jesus gave time, place, and concrete detail to a person who was originally part of the "mythic past," at the same kind of point on the timeline one would have to put the feats of a figure like Hercules or Odysseus if all you had were some very vague fictionalizations. The later texts would give you the time and place. Imagine an Oddysey that starts with a fraction of the story and no connection to the Trojan War, and you will not be too far off the process of story-making envisaged by this hypothesis.

Gregory Riley refrains from making any statements on the existence of the historical Jesus or his historical nature if he did exist. He focuses on the story as it comes to us and shows how it may borrow from similar techniques of story-telling in the Greek tradition. If you want to consider his work in relation to the first two hypotheses here, he provides a plausible bridge between the gospels and the step immediately previous in the evolution of the Jesus tradition. However, it is a bridge that is compatible with the existence of a historical Jesus, and it could merely be the way in which the tales about him were developed.

Robert Eisenman's views sees Jesus through the lens of the revolutionary movements that were active in Palestine leading up to the First Jewish Revolt and draws heavily on the texts about them from Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls to draw connections with the New Testament. The resulting picture is idiosyncratic and difficult to summarize.

The "wisdom sage" school of thought is the title chosen for what may be the most popular representation of the way people think about Jesus when they don't think about him as the divine savior. The dichotomy is often presented that way; people thinking of Jesus either as a teacher with some interesting and cogent things to say or as the person referenced in Christian theology. For those who think this way about Jesus, or who just are interested in the sayings of the gospel and what they could have looked like if formed into a philosophy of life, the writers in the school of the "wisdom sage" Jesus are worth reading.

The idea of a "man of the spirit" is the polar opposite of the "wisdom sage" school. Instead of looking at what Jesus said, they look very hard at what he did, in particular at his exorcisms and other spiritual works. Jesus and his affect on people take front seat to the things he happened to say (or perhaps not say) while he was living out his ministry.

A "prophet of social change" is going to be the closest scholarship gets to the person envisaged by the countless signs and bumper stickers making Jesus out to be a proto-hippie. This Jesus is deeply concerned with the plight of the people during the Roman occupation and speaks and acts from that starting point.

It is not hard to imagine what an apocalyptic prophet is, but it must be emphasized that the writers grouped together here are a diverse group. The only thing they have in common is that they see eschatology as the main motivator in Jesus' life, pressing upon him to travel, preach, and do everything else he did.

Placing three writers together under the banner of "Jesus the savior" does not imply that the other others do not regard Jesus as savior. In every case, the title chosen represents the most salient feature of the historical Jesus according to the author and my categorization scheme. For these three, the starting point for the rest of his actions is the self-consciousness of the historical Jesus that he is the Son of God sent into the world.

There are many more writers and even more schools of thought that are not even contained here. I probably couldn't even chase them all down if I wanted to. This document is increasingly becoming dated, so it may be regarded as nothing more than a summary of Jesus research in the era, roughly, of 1970 to 2001. If the past century is any indication, the new century will bring us even more diversity in views on the real historical Jesus.

Go to the Chronological List of all Early Christian Writings

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Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

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Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.