The impression of Jesus found in the Gospels did contain much truth; but it also contained exaggerations, misrepresentations, stories copied from the OT and other dubious elements. Jesus was Jewish his whole life and he tried to reform Judaism to make it more compassionate. He said that he had “come not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill it” (Matt 5.17).
5.1 Identifying Jesus by his Titles
Christians describe the NT Jesus with these titles and more: Christ, Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, Savior and Prophet. The word usage counts for these words and phrases in the NRSV version of the NT are: Christ (468), Messiah (68), Son of Man (85), Son of God (39), Son of David (16), Savior (25) and Prophet (5+). We don’t discuss his more ordinary titles like Teacher, Rabbi, and Lord Jesus (or Lord Jesus Christ); the latter occurs 72 times in Paul’s letters, and 30 times in the rest of the NT.
His ultimate fate, as understood by Christians, best matches the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant, described in Isaiah 52.13-53.12. This passage uses phrases such as “he shall be exalted and lifted up,” “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,” “by a perversion of justice he was taken away,” “although he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth”, and “yet he bore the sin of many; and made intercession for the transgressors.” While the suffering of Jesus is mentioned many times in the NT, the phrase ‘suffering servant’ does not appear in the NT at all.
Interestingly, Luke’s story of the virgin birth contains five of the titles for Jesus:
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” [hence, he is a kingly Messiah] (Lk 1.32). “Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk 1.35). “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” [RSV text: who is Christ the Lord]. (Lk 2.11)
Christ is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew ‘anointed one’, or Messiah. The primary idea for the Messiah was a kingly Messiah, descended from King David, and born at Bethlehem like King David, who would restore independence and self-government to the Jewish land of Israel. A secondary idea for the Messiah was the priestly Messiah, a High Priest who would restore purity and a renewed righteousness to the Jewish people. The Letter to the Hebrews is largely written as an exposition of the exalted Jesus as a high priest. In both concepts, the messiah is just a human being and has no divinity. Matthew Novenson shows the diversity of the Davidic messiah concept [PF3, 212-3]:
(2 Esdras, also known as 4 Ezra, is a noncanonical apocalyptic book which is told through the person of the lawgiver Ezra. It is included in the Slavonic Bible and the Latin Vulgate Bible apppendix [Bible,vii]).
The NT word counts show two interesting results, which both come from ‘Messiah’ being a Hebrew word and ‘Christ’ being a Greek word: The four gospels use ‘Messiah’ 52 times but ‘Christ’ only 5 times, likely because the gospels are more Jewish in orientation. On the other hand, Paul’s letters use ‘Christ’ 382 times compared to just once for ‘Messiah’, because Paul’s orientation is to the Greek-speaking Gentiles.
The title, Son of Man, requires some discussion [Bdict, 984], [ZIBD, 1383]. The Hebrew phrase is ben ’adam, meaning son of Adam, and since Adam just means humankind, this is a generic ‘son of man’, and therefore not capitalized. When used as a title for Jesus, it is capitalized. Note the usage in the passages below.
In the OT, this title can refer to a prophetic figure (Ezek 2.1, 3), to the end-time judge expected to arrive on the clouds of heaven (Dan 7.13-14), or simply to a mortal human being.
The OT references are to Ezekiel, Daniel and Psalms. In each case, the older versions of the Bible (KJV and RSV) use ‘son of man’ but it is replaced, in the NRSV by ‘mortal’ with ‘son of man’ sometimes appearing in a footnote.
The first OT reference is Ezekiel 2.3: “He said to me, Mortal [‘son of man’ in the footnote] I am sending you to the people of Israel, …” Ezekiel is addressed this way by God or an angelic messenger eighty times in older versions of the bible (KJV and RSV) but the word mortal replaces it everywhere in the NRSV.
The second OT reference is Daniel 7.13-14, which was written in Aramaic: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [Aramaic ‘one like a son of man’] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One [Aramaic ‘the Ancient of Days’; i.e. God] and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Once again, the King James and RSV versions of the Bible render the text as “one like a son of man”, while the NRSV translates the original Hebrew/Aramaic as “mortal” and puts ‘son of man’ in the footnote. Both translations are for a generic person.
In the KJV and RSV, Psalm 80.17 reads “But let thy [God’s] hand be upon the man of thy right hand [the king of Israel], the son of man whom thou hast made strong for thyself.” In the NRSV, the last phrase reads “the one whom you made strong for yourself.”
The Book of Enoch (aka 1 Enoch) is one of the most important non-canonical intertestamental books, and was well known to the Jews at the time of Jesus. It’s Book of Parables (Chapters 37-71) uses the expression ‘Son of Man’ for the eschatological protagonist, who is also called “Righteous One”, “Chosen One”, and “Messiah”, and sits on the throne of glory in the final judgment. This is the first known use of ‘Son of Man’ as a definite title and its use may have played a role in the early Christian understanding and use of the title. [BE3a, 26]
Jesus spoke about himself in the third person, as the Son of Man, eighty two times. There are only three other uses of this phrase in the NT. No one else, including Paul, ever called him by that name. It is likely that the phrase was known to the Jews as coming from Ezekiel, Daniel, and 1 Enoch. Perhaps Jesus chose it as a safe phrase, since calling himself ‘Son of God’ or ‘Messiah’ would have met with Jewish objections. [ZIBD, 1383]
Here are two of the most important NT passages about the ‘Son of Man.’
In Luke 5.20-26, Jesus claims that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” The Bible footnote to Lk 5.24 says “Jesus indirectly claims authority on earth to forgive by identifying himself as the Son of Man.”
The most important use of the phrase may well be in Mk 9.31 (also Mt 17.22-23; Lk 9.43b-45) “for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
There is some scholarly discussion about whether Jesus used this this title at all, and if he did use it, was it a reference to himself or a future divine person [Bdict, 984], It is likely that some of Jesus’ Son of Man statements were later theological insertions of the early church.
These references to Jesus as the ‘Son of Man’ in the three synoptic gospels are of three types: sayings where he refers to his present ministry; sayings where he refers to his impending passion and or resurrection; and sayings where he refers to his future role as judge and savior [Bdict, 984].
Son of God
This phrase, not found in the OT or Apocrypha, is used forty times in the NT; about half of these are in the four gospels and the other half elsewhere (1 John uses it seven times). [Bdict, 982] [Bconc]. Here are four examples:
Son of David refers to any male descendant of David down to any generation, and is very similar to the kingly Messiah concept. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the NT this Jewish concept only occurs in the three synoptic gospels: ten times in Matthew and two each in Mark and Luke.
Savior, according to one Bible dictionary, means “one who delivers anyone from present or future danger or distress.” [Bdict, 924]. Another Bible dictionary expands the definition to “one who saves, delivers, or preserves from any evil or danger, whether physical or spiritual, temporal, or eternal.” [ZIBD, 1293].
In the NT, the word ‘Savior’ usually, but not always, refers to Jesus. Here are some representative NT quotations:
Savior is pre-eminently the title of the Son in the NT letters. For example, it is used ten times in Paul’s pastoral letters alone.
Jesus is also a prophet since he fulfills many of the ancient prophecies, gives amazing new teachings, and performs miracles. In fact, Christians see Jesus Christ as God’s final prophet.
Here are a few examples of different aspects of his role:
Similarly, there are many NT passages showing that John the Baptist was also regarded as a prophet.
5.2 Jesus’ Mission and Identity
Historians of Christianity describe the mission or role of the historical Jesus in various ways. Six of these somewhat overlapping descriptions include: apocalyptic prophet; eschatological prophet; Jewish Messiah; reformer of Judaism; Galilean rabbi; and Galilean charismatic healer. These choices are all supported, to a significant degree, in the canonical gospels. Note, however, that none of these historical descriptions make him divine. We think Jesus is best understood as performing a mixture of many of these roles.
Here are typical scholarly perspectives on the role and mission of Jesus.
(2) Jesus thought
(3) The new religion, Christianity, came about in part because:
6.1 The Virgin Birth Story
We have two general observations about the virgin birth story:
Virgin birth stories are common in many religions. Here are four examples: (1) Caesar Augustus (son of the god Apollo and the human mother Atia, and the adopted son of Julius Caesar) [BW1, 218]. (2) One Zoroastrian text says that Zarathustra’s divinely given glory, in the form of two spirits, were sent down from heaven to be miraculously united with his bodily nature in his mother’s womb. [WWR, Zoroaster, 454] (3) The Second Book of Enoch contains a section, called Exaltation of Melchizedek, which says that Melchizedek was born of a virgin, Sofonim (or Sopanima), the wife of Nir, a brother of Noah [W/Mbirth]. (4) According to the tradition of the Roman Catholic church, the Virgin Mary’s parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, were childless when an angel came to them and told them they would give birth to a daughter. During the conception of Mary, she was preserved from the stain of original sin [W/Mbirth].
A survey published by The United Church Observer (Canada) in 2011 found that only 30 % of their members believed in the virgin birth, while 50% did not, and the others had no opinion.
These two observations, while giving cause for concern about the story, of course prove nothing. However, there are four specific reasons to doubt the NT story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus:
The Septuagint was the first Greek version of the OT (finished circa 200 BCE). However, the three later Greek versions of the OT (the second century CE versions of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion) translate almah correctly as neanis, or ‘young woman.’ [GV2, 186-7].
As shown in Isa 7.1-9, Isaiah’s prophecy was made to King Ahaz of Judah (743-727 BCE) in a crisis. Jerusalem was surrounded by Judah’s enemies, the northern tribes of Israel and their allies, the Syrians. This siege was to be broken after a young girl had a child named Immanuel. The prophecy was fulfilled with the asassination of the two kings (2 Kings 16). It is a time-and-place-specific prophecy, not intended to be applied to the birth of Jesus seven hundred years later [DA1, 458-9, n17]. Thus, based on both linguistics and history, Isa 7.14 does NOT predict a virgin birth for Jesus.
(1) When Jesus was presented in the Temple for the circumcision ceremony, a holy man named Simeon described him as “ ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” Luke 2.33 (partly based on Isa 49.6).
(2) At age 12 Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem talking to the teachers. “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; . . He said to them ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? But they did not understand what he said to them.” Luke 2.47-50.
There are two more reasons, apart from the virginity issue, to doubt the birth stories:
6.2 Jesus’ Threats and Warnings.
In some of his preachings, Jesus was a fanatic. Here are five examples of the NT threats and warnings of Jesus:
6.3 Jesus’ Conflicts with the Jewish Leaders
Jesus got into serious trouble with both the scribes and Pharisees, whom he contradicted, and the Saducees, who dominated the Sanhedrin and didn’t want anyone around who might cause trouble with the Roman rulers of Judea, especially during passover. Jesus’ controversial personal claims are discussed in Section 5, Mission and Identity.
Jesus criticised the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites. He also had teachings and actions that were a necessary part of his effort to reform Judaism, but which contradicted how most Pharisees interpreted Torah.
Criticising the Pharisees
Jesus made the opposition of the Pharisees stronger by his harsh criticism of them.
Teachings Extending Torah
Often Jesus confirms Torah but extends it with further moral prohibitions.
In all these quotations, Jesus goes beyond Torah, which does not mandate divorce, but simply permits it.
Teachings and Actions contrary to Jewish Laws and Practices
Ritual Purity Laws