The Jesus Movement



William S. Abruzzi










The following information is presented which suggests that Jesus may not have been a "Prince of Peace" bringing a message of universal love to all mankind, but rather may have been more militant and more specifically Jewish in his orientation than is generally recognized. He may even have posed a potential political threat to the Roman colonial administration in Judea and to the local Jewish leadership (the Sadducees), both of whom had a vested interest in maintaining the peace and eliminating those who they believed encouraged political unrest.










1.  Jesus was tried and executed by a Roman official (Pontius Pilate) for treason against the state of Rome.  This was a political crime, not a religious one, and Jesus received the punishment specifically reserved for treason under Roman law --crucifixion.  Given that Rome punished traitors with crucifixion, Jesus' statement (as quoted in Mark vii:34) that "if any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me" had real meaning to his Jewish compatriots bristling under the onus of Roman rule.  As Brandon  (1967:145) notes, "The cross was the symbol of Zealot sacrifice before it was transformed into the sign of Christian Salvation."  (The Zealots were a radical political faction among the Jews that undertook insurrection against Roman occupation of Palestine during the first century CE.)  The account of Jesus' trial which presents Pilate as believing in Jesus' innocence, but forced into pronouncing him guilty by the Jewish leadership (Mark xvi; Luke xxiii; Matthew xxvii; John xix), is both illogical and without factual basis. (The Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel. Its version of the trial and crucifixion is the original version upon which the other three gospels increasingly elaborated.)


a.    We have considerable information about Pilate from several non-Biblical sources.  These sources consistently describe Pilate as a stern government official who frequently demonstrated his toughness in dealing with the Jews.  On several  occasions, he instituted actions designed to intimidate both the Jewish population and its leadership in order to illustrate his power and assert his authority.  It is highly  unlikely that Pilate would have been pressured by the Jewish authorities into convicting Jesus of sedition if he did not believe that Jesus was guilty.


b.     The story of Pilate releasing Barabbas instead of Jesus is also unrealistic.  No evidence exists of a custom of releasing one Jewish prisoner during the Passover, other than its mention in the New Testament. Not even Josephus, the principal Jewish historian of the day, mentions it.  Indeed, it is highly unlikely that Rome would have followed such a practice in the most rebellious province in its empire (or in any other province, for that matter).  The Roman government releasing a Jewish prisoner who had murdered Roman soldiers during an insurrection as a Passover gesture would be comparable to the Israeli government releasing a Hamas or Abu Nidal terrorists during Ramadan, or to the British government releasing an IRA terrorist on St. Patrick's Day.


c.     Furthermore, as Brandon (1967:4) points out, "Mark presents Pilate, a Roman governor, not only as criminally weak in his failure to do justice, but as a fool beyond belief.  . . .  To have offered the people such a choice . . . (Jesus or Barabbas) . . . with the intention of saving Jesus, was the act of an idiot."  Given the political climate at the time, the Jews would clearly have preferred to free a Jewish nationalist, such as Barabbas, rather than a man who the gospels claim said "Love the Romans" and "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's."

d.      Finally, if Pilate undertook such an action independently, he would have had to answer to his superiors.  If Jesus was, in fact, preaching a philosophy of peace towards the Romans while Barabbas was killing Roman soldiers, Pilate would have put himself in grave jeopardy by releasing Barabbas and executing Jesus.  He would likely have found himself convicted of treason and crucified.



2.  Jesus was crucified between two "thieves".  The Latin term used to refer to these "thieves" was lestai.  This was the term the Romans used to refer to the Zealots.  It more correctly means "brigands" or "terrorists" rather than thieves.

In the Gospel of John (xviii: 40), Barabbas is said to be a lestai.  Barabbas was arrested for attacking the Roman garrison in Judea. This attack appears to have occurred simultaneous with Jesus' attack on the Temple.  Some Biblical scholars believe that Jesus and Barabbas may have been working together.  Significantly, the name Barabbas is a corruption through translation of the Hebrew term bar abba which means "son of the father".  In the Gospel of Matthew (xxvii:16), Barabbas is referred to as Jesus Barabbas, which translates to mean Jesus son of the father, the equivalent of "Jesus, Jr." in English.  One implication of Matthew's use of the name Jesus Barabbas is the possibility that Barabbas may have been Jesus' son.  However, Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name, Joshua, which was a common Jewish name that would have been given to many men besides Jesus of Nazareth.



3.   At least one of Jesus' apostles was a Zealot.  Luke (vi:15) indicates that the apostle Simon was a Zealot (see also Acts i:13).  Some Biblical scholars think that Judas Iscariot may also have been associated with the Zealots.  Another radical group, known as the Sicari, existed at the same time as the Zealots. It is unclear whether the Sicari were an elite group within the Zealots or a separate group pursuing the same political goal (see Horsley 1979; Hoenig 1970; Smith 1971).  The name Sicari means "dagger men."  It was derived from the word sica, the Latin term for a small dagger.  The members of this group were called Sicari by the Romans because they used small daggers to assassinate prominent Jewish leaders who they believed had betrayed the Jewish people in order to maintain their positions of prominence in the local community   The name Iscariot derives from the Latin, sicarius, which is remarkably close to Iscariot (simply invert the first two letters of the word sicarius and replace the Latin ending [us] with the Greek ending [ot] and you have Iscariot.)  John (xiii:2) states that Judas Iscariot was Simon the Zealot's son.  If this is true, then Judas, like his father Simon, may also have been a Zealot.


Significantly, in one exchange Judas criticizes Jesus for wasting money anointing himself with oil when the money in question could have been given to the poor (see John xii:5). This would have been precisely the kind of issue that would have concerned a Zealot fighting for the interests of the poor.  Interestingly, Jesus' response to Judas' criticism was a rather cavalier one, showing little regard for the welfare of the poor: "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." (John xii:7).  (Jesus' reply to Judas sounds remarkably similar in tone to Marie Antoinette's infamous response to the poor of France who complained that they could not afford bread: "Let them eat cake.")  Judas' betrayal of Jesus was more likely for socio-political reasons than for a mere 30 pieces of silver.  Indeed, Matthew is the only evangelist to mention a specific price of 30 pieces of silver.  He simply borrowed the amount from a quote in Zechariah (xi:12) in order to link Jesus with Old Testament prophecy, which Matthew  --and only Matthew--  does repeatedly!  In fact, the gospel attributed to Matthew contains 19 Old Testament parallels and 11 "fulfillment citations", none of which are contained in any of the other gospels.



4.   Jesus came from Galilee and was in many ways a typical Galilean prophet, at least as he is portrayed in Mark and Matthew.  Exorcisms and healings of the sick were a standard part of the repertoire of other Galilean prophets as well (see Vermez 1973).  Galileans were considered by Judeans to be largely ignorant of the fine points of Jewish Law, in part because they retained their provincial identity and resisted the political, economic and cultural dominance of Judea.  Many of Jesus' disagreements with the Pharisees (who were very concerned with upholding the Law) were typical of Galilean laxity toward the Law, which was viewed by many Galileans as a vehicle of Judean dominance over Galilee.   For this reason, the general Judean attitude towards Galilean prophets was a condescending one, not unlike the attitude that many mainstream Christians today have towards fundamentalist preachers in Appalachia and the rural South. 





Horseley and Hanson (1985) list at least 5 major bandit gangs, 6 messianic claimants and 5 self-proclaimed prophets (not including Jesus) that roamed the Palestinian countryside during the first century CE (see chart below).  Roman occupation of Palestine imposed an economic hardship on indigenous peasant communities, and Galileans played a prominent role in the militaristic-messianic revolt against Roman rule that persisted throughout the the latter half of the first century BCE and  the first and early second centuries CE.  While serving his father, Herod executed a Galilean insurgent named Ezekias, who had a large following.  Some forty years later, upon Herod's own death, Ezekias' son Judas led a revolt against Roman rule which resulted in his crucifixion and that of 2000 other rebels.  In 6 CE, another Judas of Galilee, founded the Zealots (also called the Fourth Philosophy to distinguish it from the teachings of the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes) and led a revolt against the imposition of direct Roman rule.  This revolt was sparked by the Roman census of Judea conducted that year.  This census, which is mentioned in Luke (ii:1), was undertaken, as most censuses are, for the purpose of collecting taxes (see Abruzzi, When Was Jesus Born?).  The exact fate of Judas and his followers is not known.  However, Acts (v:36-37), states that, like Theudas before him, Judas "also perished, and all who followed him were scattered."  The mantle of Judas' leadership passed to his two sons, who were subsequently crucified in 46-48 CE.  Judas' third son, Menahem, initially led the revolt against Rome in 66 CE.  Finally, Eleazar, the leader of the rebels at Masada (all of whom died in 73 CE) was also a Galilean and a descendent of Judas.  So strong was the tradition of revolt in Galilee, that the terms Galilean and Zealot were frequently used synonymously by the Romans.  Roman occupation (like most colonial situations) spawned numerous prophets, most notably Theudas, "The Egyptian" and John the Baptist.  The message that these prophets taught was very similar to that attributed to Jesus: the imminent end of the world and God's impending judgment of humankind.


Jesus, thus, lived during a period of heightened messianic fervor and of intense political activity against Rome.  He also lived in the very province that served as a center of revolt.  Jesus, therefore, grew up in a land in which men like Judas of Galilee and his brothers were considered martyrs and messengers of God, much as the Maccabees had been viewed before them (and in much the same way that the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah are viewed by many Palestinians today).  As a young boy, Jesus could not have escaped being influenced by the events and the intense feelings of the people around him.  Furthermore, if he were successful at attracting a large following in such a highly charged political context, it would be highly unlikely that this following would have been based on a message of love for the Romans and kindness towards one's enemies.  More likely, Jesus' popularity would have been based on the compatibility of his mission with the tradition of a militant Messiah represented by such popular Jewish leaders as Judas of Galilee, Judas Maccabee, King David and Bar Kochva.

If we look at the men Jesus chose as apostles, all of whom were Galileans (There were no Judean apostles and, certainly, no Gentiles), we see at least five who displayed a propensity towards violence.  As already indicated, Simon was a Zealot and Judas was likely a Sicari and/or a Zealot.  Another Simon was nicknamed Peter (meaning Rock, or possibly the equivalent of "Rocky") and used a sword to cut off a soldier's ear in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark xiv:47; John xviii:10).  And both James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also known as the Sons of Thunder (Mark iii:17) because of their violent tempers.  Indeed, at one point they wanted to destroy a Samaritan village because its residents refused to allow Jesus to enter their village (Luke ix:54).




Bandits, Prophets, Messiahs

and Other Political Players at the Time of Jesus




SOURCE:  Horsley and Hanson (1985)





5.   The version of Jesus that has come down through the centuries derives primarily from Paul (who was not an apostle and who, in fact, never met Jesus), and from the four canonical gospels, which: (1) were written primarily for Gentile audiences, and (2) were written between 40 (Mark) and 70 or more (John) years after Jesus had died.  Thus, none of the New Testament sources can be considered "eyewitness" accounts.  Applying standard techniques used in the study of oral literature, Funk, Hoover and the 76 Biblical scholars that constituted the Jesus Seminar (1996) concluded that only about 20% of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels can be confidently attributed to him.  (Significantly, not a single quote in the entire Gospel of John was considered authentic by these scholars.  The gospel that was considered the most authentic was the Gospel of Thomas, one of 16 Gnostic Gospels, all of which were rejected by the early Church as heretical and excluded from the Christian Bible.)  Because all four canonical gospels were written several decades after Jesus had died, they were completely removed from the political conditions in Palestine at the time Jesus lived.  They were also written by individuals who did not live in Palestine.


          Also, given the embarrassing fact that Jesus was crucified by a Roman governor (and the fact that crucifixion was largely reserved for the lowliest criminals (see Samuelsson 2011), the gospels were increasingly concerned with separating Jesus from the political context of Roman Palestine.  The gospels are, therefore, completely silent regarding the political events contemporary with the life of Jesus, political events that convulsed the very land in which Jesus lived and preached.  As Marvin Harris (1974:161) notes,


From the gospels alone, you would never know that Jesus spent most of his life in the central theater of one of history's fiercest guerrilla uprisings.   You could never guess that in 68 AD. ...(CE)... the Jews went on to stage  a full-scale revolution that required the attention of six Roman legions  . . .  (about 36,000 soldiers) . . .  under the command of two future Roman emperors before it was brought under control.



6.   Furthermore, the Gospels themselves evolved through time.  Mark's gospel  (70-75) is universally considered the first gospel by biblical scholars, followed by Matthew (80-85), Luke (80-90) and John (90-100).  In addition, the four canonical gospels cannot be considered independent of one another.  About 80% of the verses in Mark are reproduced in Matthew, and about 65% are reproduced in Luke, in largely the same order as they appear in Mark.  Consequently, the fact that a particular story exists in more than one gospel does not necessarily increase that story's validity, since the later gospel writer quite likely borrowed the story from the earlier gospel (see Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus).  Moreover, in addition to Mark, there are other earlier sayings gospels that scholars believe existed and contributed to the various gospels.  One proposed source called "Q" is believed to be the origin of certain similarities between Mathew and Luke, while a radically different earlier source, referred to as "Signs", is thought to have influenced John (see chart below). 





SOURCE:  Funk, Hoover, (1993).





Mark's gospel begins with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist.  There is no birth story in Mark, no visitation by Magi or by shepherds, no Christmas star, no virgin birth, no "Slaughter of the Innocents" by Herod, and no census forcing Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem.  Each one of these stories is presented in either Matthew or Luke.  However, none of the same stories is contained in both gospels.  In fact, Matthew's and Luke's versions of the birth story contradict each other in practically every detail (see Abruzzi, When Was Jesus Born?).  Indeed, the two gospels tend to agree with one another primarily where they closely follow Mark's earlier account, because they likely borrowed those stories directly from Mark's gospel.  They tend to flatly contradict one another where they contain material that was not previously borrowed from Mark.  Matthew and Luke completely contradict one another regarding events surrounding the birth of Jesus, because none of this material is included in Mark.  They even contradict one another regarding the very year Jesus was born.   Matthew claims that Jesus was born during the rule of Herod the Great.  We know from Roman records that Herod died in 4 BCE.  Luke, on the other hand, claims that Jesus was born during the Roman census of Judea.  That census occurred in 6CE, ten years after Herod's death.  It is unlikely that either Matthew or Luke presents the correct date of Jesus' birth.  Furthermore, whereas Luke states that Jesus and his family came to Bethlehem for the census and returned to Nazareth immediately afterwards, Bethlehem was where Joseph and Mary lived in Matthew.  Moreover, Matthew has Jesus and his family flee to Egypt until the death of Herod before settling in Nazareth, because they could not return to Bethlehem.  Each author chose their respective settings for Jesus' birth in order to create a dramatic context within which to place his birth in order to enhance their story.  For Matthew, Jesus' escape from Herod's "Slaughter of the Innocents" was a replay of Moses' escape from the Pharaoh's killing of the first born in Exodus (1:16-22) and the Israelites escape from Yahweh's genocidal slaughter of Egyptian children (see Exodus 11 & 12) in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian's Old Testament).  Luke, on the other hand, was not as tenaciously concerned with linking Jesus to Old Testament prophecy, as was Matthew, but showed more interest in placing Jesus' birth in the context of the Gentile Roman world in which he existed.  So, he placed Jesus' birth at the time of the Roman census of Judea.


Similarly, the picture of Jesus evolves through the four gospels.  Jesus is portrayed in Mark and Matthew as a prophet primarily to the Jews, while he is presented as a prophet to Jew and Gentile alike in Luke, and as the savior of all mankind in John.   Jesus preaches only among Jews in Mark and Matthew.  It is also in the first two gospels that Jesus refuses to cure a Syrophoenician woman's daughter because the woman is a Gentile (Mark vii:24-30; Matthew xv:21-28), and it is in Matthew (x:5-6) that he explicitly instructs his apostles not to preach among the Samaritans but to preach only among the Jews.  In contrast, it is in Luke (ix:55) that Jesus restrains James and John, "The Sons of Thunder", from destroying a Samaritan village because its residents refuse to let Jesus preach there.  We also see the parable of the "Good Samaritan" only in Luke (x:30), as well as the story of Jesus curing 10 people in which only the Samaritan returns to thank him (Luke xvii:16-17).  And, finally, in John (iv:9-10, 22-23), Jesus shares a cup of water with a Samaritan woman and tells her that she will be with him in heaven.  Later, when the woman tells other Samaritans about Jesus, they invite Jesus to stay in their village, which (in direct contradiction to Mark and Matthew) he does for two days.  They also immediately believe in Jesus as the messiah, so charismatic is his presence (iv:39-40), again in direct contrast to Mark and Matthew where Jesus' message is rejected by his contemporaries, Jew and Samaritan alike.  The Samaritans were the descendents of the former Northern Kingdom (see Genealogy, Politics and History in the Book of Genesis) that split from the Kingdom of David and Solomon upon Solomon's death.  There had always been animosity between the Judeans and Samaritans, and Luke (a Gentile) was playing upon that animosity in portraying the Samaritans in a good light.


 The same evolution of Jesus from local Jewish prophet to universal messiah can be seen in his relation to the two "thieves" (lestai) next to him on the cross.  Whereas in Mark (xv:27) neither thief says anything to Jesus, in Matthew ( xxvii:44) both thieves revile Jesus along with the rest of the crowd gathered at the crucifixion.  In Luke (xxiii:39-43), on the other hand, one of the thieves (the "Good Thief") acknowledges Jesus as the messiah and is told by Jesus that "today you will be with me in Paradise."  No thief is mentioned in John.



7.   The parochialism and possible insignificance of Jesus and his mission in Palestine is strongly suggested by the fact that no first-century sources outside the New Testament clearly mentions him. No Roman records have survived that contain details about Jesus or any of his contemporaries in Palestine. The earliest Roman source that exists is a second-century reference to Jesus by the Roman Senator and historian, Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Tacitus (116-117 CE) refers to Jesus in his Annals (15: 44) in conjunction with his description of Nero's burning of Rome in 64 CE. According to Tacitus, in order to counteract accusations that he himself had initiated the fire, Nero blamed the conflagration on Christians. While Tacitus' reference to Jesus corroborates elements of Christian belief, it is not clear where Tacitus obtained his information. It could quite easily have come from Christians themselves.


Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.


Josephus, the principal Jewish historian of the first century CE, appears to have mentioned Jesus twice in his Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.3 and 20.9.1), first in a general description of Jesus, and second in relation to the execution of Jesus' brother James. The first reference constitutes a one-paragraph description of Jesus (18.3.3) that is included in Josephus'  discussion of the various Jewish "prophets" and messianic claimants that appeared in Palestine during the reign of Pontius Pilate. The authenticity of this paragraph, however, is highly suspect. It is generally considered by biblical scholars to have been inserted later by a Christian scribe.  The paragraph states:


At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.


This paragraph is considered inauthentic (either wholly or in part) for several reasons.  First of all, it differs sharply both in its writing style and vocabulary, as well as in the tone of its commentary, from the surrounding narrative. While Josephus depicts most of  the other bandits, prophets, terrorists, and messianic pretenders that arose during Pilate's administration in largely negative terms, the paragraph in question provides an uncharacteristically glowing  portrait of Jesus. Josephus was an upper class Pharisee, who had little respect for those who claimed to be either prophets or messiahs --of which there were many during the first century CE (see Horsley and Hanson 1985). He, in fact, blamed them and their actions for the eventual destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that Josephus would have provided a glowing description of Jesus had he, indeed, claimed to be either a prophet or the messiah.  Furthermore, Josephus' description of Jesus does not appear until the fourth century.  No church leaders prior to this time mention Josephus' statement, even though the existence of such a declaration would clearly have served their purposes. For example, while Origen (c. 185-254 CE) quotes the paragraph mentioning Jesus in relation to the execution of James on three separate occasions, he never once mentions the description of Jesus presented in the above paragraph, suggesting that the paragraph did not appear until after Origen's death.


Now Origen not only does not quote the Christian passage, but he uses such language as to make it impossible to maintain that the words "he was the Christ" appeared in the text, for he says: Though he (Josephus) did not believe in Jesus as the Christ, he none the less asseverates that the calamity of the destruction of the Temple came upon the Jews for putting to death James, who was most distinguished for his justice. If the Christ passage really appeared in Josephus, it would be hard to believe that Origen, who quotes the James passage, should not know the other passage, which is recorded in the same chapter. (Zeitlin 1928: 233-234)


Most Importantly, those portions of Josephus' quote highlighted in lavender indicate that the description of Jesus contained in the above paragraph and attributed to Josephus was written by someone who clearly believed:  (1) that Jesus was a god; (2) that Jesus arose from the dead; and (3) that Jesus was predicted by several Old Testament prophets.  These were the beliefs of those individuals who eventually came to be known as Christians. Josephus was an Orthodox Jew, not a Christian. He never converted to Christianity. He, therefore, would not have made statements that would only be made by a Christian. The above paragraph also states that the Jews instigated Jesus' crucifixion. This was also a specifically Christian idea. Since Josephus was not a Christian, it is unlikely that he would have made this statement either (see Zeitlin 1928: The Christ Passage in Josephus).  It is, therefore, highly likely that the entire paragraph is a forgery (for an extensive discussion of forgery in early Christian writing, see Ehrman 2013). A less likely alternative would be to accept the paragraph as authentic, minus the lavender text (see Mykytiuk 2015).


Josephus' description of Jesus stands in sharp contrast with his discussion of John the Baptist, which is universally accepted by biblical scholars as authentic. To begin with, Josephus' discussion of John the Baptist contains 162 words, compared to only 60 words about Jesus (Meier 1992: 227, note 8). Furthermore, unlike Josephus' reference to Jesus, his description of John is largely invariant in all available manuscripts of Antiquities. In Addition, in contrast with Josephus' purported description of Jesus, the vocabulary and style of the writing in his description of the Baptist are consistent with that of the rest of Antiquities (see Meier 1992: 225-226). It is also significant that, while Josephus presents a detailed discussion of the circumstances and popular beliefs surrounding the execution of John (including the belief that Herod's army was later destroyed as God's revenge for John's death), the above paragraph contains at best a perfunctory mention of Jesus' execution.


In the second reference to Jesus in Antiquities (20.9.1), Josephus refers to Jesus in order to identify Jesus’ brother James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, who was executed by the high priest Ananus during the interregnum that occurred in 62 CE between the death of the Roman governor Festus and arrival of his replacement Albinus. Josephus described the situation as follows:


Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, "sanhedrin"] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah ... James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.


The principal reason Josephus mentions this incident is that Ananus' execution of James resulted in the former losing his position as high priest. Mykytiuk (2015: 4-5) explains why Josephus includes a reference to Jesus in his description of that event.


James (Jacob) was a common Jewish name at this time. Many men named James are mentioned in Josephus’s works, so Josephus needed to specify which one he meant. The common custom of simply giving the father’s name (James, son of Joseph) would not work here, because James’s father’s name was also very common. Therefore Josephus identified this James by reference to his famous brother Jesus. But James’s brother Jesus (Yehoshua) also had a very common name. Josephus mentions at least 12 other men named Jesus. Therefore Josephus specified which Jesus he was referring to by adding the phrase "who is called Messiah,"


It is significant that, in referencing Jesus during his discussion of the execution of James, Josephus makes no mention that this is the same Jesus he described previously in Antiquities.  As Zeitlin (1928: 235) clearly points out,


If these two passages, i.e. the Christian passage and the James passage, really belong to Josephus, Josephus in the second passage, where he says "James the brother of Christ," would have said that "this is the Christ who was crucified by Pilate," as we see throughout his books that where he has occasion to mention a name twice he repeats that "this is the same man."


Significantly, an Old Russian translation of Josephus' Jewish Wars exists which diverges sharply from the Greek translation of that work. In it, Josephus describes "an anonymous Wonder-worker, very much like Jesus, who was associated with a projected attack on the Romans in Jerusalem, which the latter anticipated and bloodily suppressed (Brandon 1967:368)."  According to Brandon (ibid.), the account of the teaching of the followers of this Wonder-worker "accords remarkably with what we have been led to infer concerning the teachings of the Jewish Christians."


Wells (1988) and Zindler, who represent a decidedly minority opinion, use the absence of any extra-Biblical mention of Jesus to argue that Jesus may, in fact, never have existed.  Wells argues that Jesus was a later mythical creation to serve the needs of a growing cult, much like Zeus, Jupiter, Osiris, Mithras and the many other gods of the ancient world.  The word Christian is used only 3 times in the New Testament: twice in Acts (xi:26, xxvi:28) and once in 1Peter (iv:16), but never in any of the gospels.  It is not until at least 40 years after Jesus' supposed death, he argues, that any biographical material about Jesus emerges.  The earliest New Testament writings about Jesus are those contained in Paul's Epistles.  Paul presents no biographical information about Jesus and very little hint that Jesus was an actual human being.  According to Wells, Paul makes no mention of Jesus' birth, his crucifixion or of any other events in his life.  What little biographical information about Jesus does emerge, appears much later in the various gospels and is both spotty and highly contradictory.  Even the claim that Jesus came from Nazareth is questioned and is considered by many scholars to be a mistranslation of the word Nazarite, which refers to someone who has taken a vow to adhere to very strict Jewish religious rules (see Numbers. 6:2-21). In fact, Nazareth may not have even existed in Jesus' time.  It is not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and does not appear on any local maps until the second century CE.  It is not mentioned by Paul; nor is it contained in the Talmud, even though the Talmud names 63 Galilean towns.  Furthermore, Josephus, who was the military leader placed in charge of Galilee during the the revolt of 66-70 CE does not mention Nazareth in the list of towns he visited in order to obtain recruits and supplies.  At present, the archaeological evidence for the earliest habitation of Nazareth are inconclusive. Thus, little credible historical information exists from which a reliable portrait of Jesus can be constructed,  There is, therefore, some truth to M.S. Enslin's (1961) comment on Jesus, "We do not have enough material to write a respectable obituary."



8.    The early Christian Church was centered in Jerusalem and was originally under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus ("Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?" --Mark vi:3) (see also Matt. xiii:55;  Mark xvi:40; Gal. i:19; Acts xxi:18, xv:6-22).  Paul was not converted until about 34 CE, and by what he claimed was a divine revelation. (The Uniformitarian Principle in science would require that researchers treat the claim of divine revelation by Paul using the same methods that would be applied to someone else making a similar claim, whether today or in the past.)  However, Paul's authority was not accepted by James or by the members of Jerusalem Church.  In fact, Paul was strongly criticized and made to appear before James because of the unacceptability of the version of Jesus that Paul taught (see Acts xxi:20-26).  While James did not recognize Paul's authority, Paul clearly deferred to James.


Acts of the Apostles (xv:1-22; xxi:20-21) and the various epistles of Paul clearly indicate that an intense conflict existed between Paul and the leaders of the original Jerusalem Church (see Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus, note #9).  Paul and the evangelists who later wrote the Gospels presented the picture of a universalistic, non-Jewish messiah that was in sharp contrast with the version of Christianity practiced by those who preached alongside Jesus and who were eyewitnesses to his life.  According to Paul, the members of the Jerusalem Church taught a "different Gospel" and presented "another Jesus" (Cor. II:4).  While Paul taught of a Messiah to Jew and non-Jew alike, the early apostles retained their Jewish orthodoxy.  James was a respected member of the Jewish community who closely adhered to Temple observances.  Moreover, the apostles were generally zealous in observing the dietary regulations of the Torah.  At one point Peter was rebuked by emissaries from James for eating among the Gentiles while visiting Paul, and he subsequently "withdrew from that place" (Gal. ii:11-12).  When Paul was commanded to appear before James he was expected to observe Temple (i.e., Jewish) rituals in order to demonstrate his fidelity to the Jerusalem Church, and a major dispute occurred over circumcision and the degree to which Gentile converts were expected to adhere to Jewish law (see Acts xvi:3; xxi:18-26). Indeed, Barnabas, Paul's companion, had  to be circumcised on the spot before he and Paul would be allowed to enter the Temple to meet with James.


Furthermore, members of the Christian Church in Jerusalem included priests, Pharisees (Acts vi:7, xv:5) and others who were described as "zealous of the law" (i.e., the Torah) (Acts xxi:20).  With the total destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the resulting devastation of Jerusalem, no trace remains of the original Jerusalem Christian Church  --the church founded by Jesus' apostles-- and its teachings.  What little may have been preserved, was either eliminated or edited by the later Gentile Church leadership. Some scholars think that he descendants of the original Jerusalem Christian Church crossed over into Jordan and later became known as the Ebionites. The Ebionites survived for about a century.  Eventually, they were declared heretics by the larger and more powerful Gentile Christian Church and disappeared from history. (As an interesting side note, Martin Luther purportedly so disliked the Epistle of James, which is generally attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, that he regularly ripped it out of his Bibles.)


9.   Despite editing, however, several accounts of Jesus' actions remain in the gospels which strongly suggest that he taught a gospel in accordance with traditional Jewish notions of a messiah and that he viewed himself as a prophet exclusively to the Jews.  To begin with, Jesus chose 12 apostles (not 10, 15 or 20).  Twelve was an important number to the Jews:  it represented the mythical twelve tribes of Israel.  Likewise, despite the presence of many Gentiles (non-Jews) throughout Palestine, Jesus did not choose a single Gentile as an apostle (or, for that matter a single woman).  Indeed, Jesus' parochialism is strongly evidenced by the fact that every one of his apostles was a Galilean.  Not one apostles even came from Judea or Samaria.  In addition, Jesus and his apostles preached only among the Jews, and they never preached outside of Palestine, an area the size of New Jersey (see map below).  Also, when Peter asks Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?", Jesus replies, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matthew ixx:27-28)  In other words, Jesus' mission is to the Jews --i.e., to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.   Finally, in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) Jesus is always pictured adhering to all the tenets of Judaism.  In Matthew (v:17) Jesus says "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I come not to abolish but to fulfill." In Matthew (x:5-6) Jesus commands his apostles: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  In Matthew (x:34-35) he also states: "Think not that I come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace but a sword.  For I come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."  Again in Matthew (x:38) he says, "And whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me."  And yet again in Matthew (x:14-15) Jesus states: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.  Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorra on the day of judgment than for that town."


 Jesus' initial refusal to heal the daughter of the "Syrophonecian woman" (Mark vii:24-30; Matthew xv:21-28) was based on her being a Gentile, and he resorts to calling her a "dog", a derogatory term applied by Jews to Gentiles at that time: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (Mark vii:27).  Jesus eventually agrees to cure the woman's daughter, but only after she demonstrates her subservient status as a Gentile: "But she answered him, 'Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs'" (Mark vii:28; see also Matthew xv:27).  Similarly, he instructs his apostles to "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine." (see Matthew vii:6).  The term swine (pig) was a derogatory term used by the Jews of the time to refer to Roman soldiers (much as anti-war demonstrators of the 1960's used the same term to refer to the police).


Jesus' clearing of the Temple was in the militant tradition of Jewish resistance groups like the Zealots and the Sicari in that it threatened the economic base of the religious aristocracy (the Sadducees) who helped maintain Roman rule.  This was likely the reason that religious leaders arrested Jesus.  Some scholars also argue that Jesus could not conceivably have cleared the Temple alone and unaided (anymore than a single person today could clear an entire shopping center by themselves).  Indeed, those in charge did not try to arrest him at the time because they feared the wrath of the crowd (Mark xxii:12).  They arrested him later in the evening instead when it was safer to do so.





Significantly, the cleansing of the temple occurred shortly following Jesus' grand entrance into Jerusalem among a cheering crowd shouting "hosanna", a term which had a political meaning at the time (Brandon 1967), and in a manner according to which earlier Jewish prophets claimed the Messiah-king would come to restore Israel's freedom.  Coincident with Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem and his skirmish at the Temple, an attack was made against the Roman garrison.  It was during that attack (in which several Roman soldiers were killed) that Barabbas was apparently arrested.  Some scholars believe that the two events were connected.  In any case, later that night anticipating his arrest on the Mount of Olives, Jesus made sure his apostles were armed (Luke xxii: 35-38). 


10.   In the earlier gospels, Jesus is also clear when the day of judgment was to occur.  As he sent his apostles out he said: "And as you go proclaim the good news, "The kingdom of heaven has come near."  (Matthew x:7) "But when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of Man comes." (Matthew x:23).  In Luke (xxi:32), Jesus says: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place."  It is only later, with the writing of the Gospel of John (by which time Jesus had not returned) that an explicit reference to the time of the second coming is dropped.  It is for this reason that most scholars view Jesus as an eschatological prophet who, like John the Baptist and numerous others at the time, preached that the end of the world was at hand (cf. Ehrman 1999).  This picture of Jesus is presented very clearly in Mark and in Matthew.  However, in the later gospels the picture of Jesus changes; since the events that Jesus forecasted did not occur, the timing of the Second Coming becomes increasingly indeterminate.



11.   Like all written documents, the Bible has undergone numerous changes during the past 2,000 years.  It has, first of all, undergone numerous translations and revisions.  In the past 100 years, archaeological discoveries at Qumran in Palestine, at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and elsewhere have uncovered many Christian and pre-Christian documents that were destroyed and were, therefore, eliminated from the Christian record (particularly as those referred to today as the Orthodox faction gained control of the Church during the fourth century CE).  Over 50 documents were discovered at Nag Hammadi alone, including gospels by Thomas, Peter, James (Jesus' brother), Mary Magdalene and Philip (see Pagels 1981; Barnstone 1984; Robinson 1988).  The discovery of these documents forced hundreds of changes in the King James Version of the Bible and has spawned the creation of whole new versions of the Bible, including the New Jerusalem Version and the New Revised Standard Version. As a result of these discoveries, the King James Version is now considered a highly inaccurate (though beautifully written) version of the Bible.


Significantly, the Gnostic Gospels present a very different picture of Jesus and of the relation of Mary Magdalene and the Apostles to Jesus.  Mary is variously referred to in the Gnostic Gospels as the "One who knew the All", the "Apostle who excels the rest", the "Disciple of the Lord", "One who reveals the Greatness of the Revealer", the "Inheritor of the Light", the "Privileged Interlocutor", the "One who is always with the Lord", the "One whom they call His Consort", and the "Chosen of Women".  The Gospel of Philip even states: “The Lord loved Mary more than all the disciples and kissed her on her mouth often. The others said to him: Why do you love her more than all of us? The Savior answered and said to them: Why do I not love you like her?” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene discusses the jealousy of the apostles towards her and of her conflict with them (especially Peter) due to the closeness of her relationship with Jesus.  It is the "special relationship" between Jesus and Mary Magdalene presented throughout the Gnostic Gospels that has provided the basis for the claim that Jesus and Mary were married made in such popular books as Holy Blood Holy Grail and The DaVinci Code.


Those who claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married argue that, given Jewish customs during the first century CE, it is unlikely that a single woman could have traveled alone with Jesus without creating a controversy.  Some have even suggested that the wedding feast at Cana was Jesus' wedding.  Why, they ask, would servants have come to guests at a wedding to tell them they are out of wine?  More likely, the servants would have gone to the groom and to the family giving the wedding to inform them of the situation in order to find out what to do.  Finally, all four canonical gospels list Mary Magdalene as the first person at Jesus' tomb and the one who discovered his body missing.  She was the original disciple of the risen Jesus --the Apostle to the Apostles.


Much of the censorship of the New Testament occurred during the third and fourth centuries CE as Christianity became an established state religion within the Roman Empire.  In  313 CE, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which forbade persecution of all forms of monotheism, including Christianity.  Constantine, who converted to Christianity on his deathbed, also presided over the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, at which time three principles were established as central tenets of Christianity:  (1) the divinity of Jesus, (2) Jesus' virgin birth, and (3) Jesus' physical resurrection.  These principles were established by a vote of those who attended the Council and incorporated into a document known as The Nicene Creed. This date, thus, marks the effective beginning of modern Christianity.


The Council of Nicea and The Nicene Creed were a response to the fact that there were many Christian denominations that rejected one or more of these three principles, including Gnostic Christians.  These Christians referred to the more conservative form of Christianity based on the above three principles as the "faith of fools" for accepting such absurd ideas (Pagels 1981).  To the Gnostic Christians, these three principles were to be understood as referring to the spiritual aspect of Jesus; they were not to be taken as literal statements (much as fundamentalist Christians today accept the literal interpretation of the Bible). The acceptance of these three principles as fundamental Christian beliefs marked the political victory of the orthodox and literalist faction within the early Church.  With the power of Rome on the side of the orthodox faction (governments tend to side with orthodox conservatives rather than free-thinking liberals), all opposing forces, especially the Gnostics, were branded as heretics and eliminated.


However, numerous dissenting groups arose within Christianity during the following centuries that rejected the three basic principles mentioned above.  These were routinely defined as heretics and forcefully suppressed by the Church because they represented threats to its authority and power.  The most notable of these groups were the Albigensians (Cathars) of southern France against which the Church launched one of its holy wars or Crusades, comparable to a Muslim jihad. (Many characteristics associated with the Christian Crusades were similar to those of the the Muslim jihad [holy war], including the proclamation that those who died in battle would go directly to heaven.)


Finally, in 331 CE, Constantine commissioned the compiling of the New Testament (The Christian Bible).  In 367 CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria compiled a list of books to be included in the New Testament.  His list was eventually ratified by a Church council at Hippo in 392 CE and again by the Council of Carthage in 397 CE.  Early Christian writings that did not conform to the orthodox view of Christianity --of which there were many (see Pagels 1981; Barnstone 1984; Robinson 1990) -- were destroyed, while parts of New Testament documents (including sections of the four canonical Gospels) that did not adhere to the dominant view were removed.  (The Gospel of John, for example, was very controversial and was initially rejected by many orthodox bishops as being non-canonical.  It was considered too Gnostic.  Similarly, as mentioned above, the original Gospel of Mark did not include a resurrection.)  It was in this manner that the New Testament came to be what it is today.  As Pagels (1981:179) clearly notes, "It is the winners who write history --their way." Of the nearly 5,000 early manuscript versions of the New Testament, not one predates the 4th century CE.  It is only with the discoveries at Qumran and Nag Hammadi that many of the early documents destroyed during the fourth century have been recovered, giving us a fresh new look at early Christianity.



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Samuelsson, Gunnar. (2011). Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.

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Zindler, Frank R. (1998). "Did Jesus Exist?"  The American Atheist, (Summer Issue).




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