Historical Jesus Theories

Some modern scholars have differentiated between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" and attempted to discover the nature and teachings of the historical Jesus. These scholars and authors have come to a wide variety of conclusions about who Jesus really was.

The following chart provides a summary of the main theories of the historical Jesus and the scholars who teach them (including those who believe the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith to be one and the same), listed in alphabetical order by author. It is important to note that although the authors are listed equally in this chart, not all have equal credentials or expertise in the same area. Some are not academics at all.

The Historical Jesus Was...
Marcus J. Borg
Distinguished Professor in Religion and Culture and
Hundere Endowed Chair in Religious Studies (Retired), Oregon State University

"A spirit person, subversive sage, social prophet, and movement founder who invited his followers and hearers into a transforming relationship with the same Spirit that he himself knew, and into a community whose social vision was shaped by the core value of compassion."

Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah, nor did he regard "the supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God as a world-ending event in his own generation."

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1995)

John Dominic Crossan , Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, DePaul University, Chicago
A displaced Galilean peasant artisan fed up with the situation under the Romans.

Jesus preached a radical message of an egalatarian Kingdom of God present on earth and available to all.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Historical Jesus
Stevan Davies, Professor of Religious Studies, College Misericordia,
Dallas, Pennsylvania

A "spirit-possessed" healer who was possessed by the "Spirit of God," by which he performed his healings.

Jesus' followers came to think of him as divine by identifying him with the Spirit of God that had possessed him.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity (1995)
Earl Doherty A myth. There was no historical Jesus.

The idea of a mythical divine Christ was combined with an anonymous collection of wisdom sayings by the author of Mark, then copied by the other gospel writers.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? (1999)
Bart Ehrman, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill

An apocalyptic prophet who expected the imminent end of the world.

The teachings of Jesus are an "interim ethic" intended to apply to the short period of under a generation between the time of Jesus and the end of the age. Elements of realized eschatology in some of the gospels are a softening of Jesus' original message.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999)
Robert Eisenman,
Professor of Middle East Religions and Archaeology and Islamic Law at California State University, Long Beach

A nationalistic Jew of insurrectionist bent.

Jesus' teachings were continued by James the Just, but "Jamesian Christianity" was played down by the Gospels, which are pro-Gentile, pro-Roman fictions which deliberately portray Jesus as a pacifistic, spiritual Messiah. Jesus and Paul are also identified with figures in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
James the Brother of Jesus (1998)
Paula Fredriksen, Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University

An apocalyptic prophet who did not present himself as the Messiah.

"This Jesus thus is not primarily a social reformer with a revolutionary message; nor is he a religious innovator radically redefining the traditional ideas and practices of his native religion. His urgent message had not the present so much as the near future in view."

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (2000)
Timothy Freke, BA in philosophy and speaker on spirituality, and Peter Gandy, MA in classical civilization
AJewish myth based on pagan gods and mystery religions. Jesus never existed.

The authors draw parallels between the Christ of the Gospels and the Osiris-Dionysus myth.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (2001)
Robert Funk (1926-2005), founder of The Jesus Seminar

An itinerant sage who was not apocalyptic, but taught the arrival of the Kingdom of God as both present and future.

Jesus' subtlety was lost on his followers, who were apocalyptic like John the Baptist.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Gospel of Jesus According to the Jesus Seminar (1999)
Richard Horsley A social revolutionary who believed that God would soon effect a historical transformation on behalf of Israel.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (1992)
Luke Timothy Johnson, Catholic professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University

The same as the "Christ of faith" - the Son of God who died for our sins. Johnson criticizes the Jesus Seminar for going beyond what little can actually be known about the historical Jesus. What is not known for certain (such as the resurrection) should be accepted based on tradition and the authority of the church.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and Truth of the Traditional Gospels (1997)
Gerd Lüdemann A apocalyptic follower of John the Baptist and wisdom teacher. "In its decisive phase, Jesus' life was shaped by the unshakable faith that he had to interpret God's law authoritatively in God's name." Jesus did not do miracles nor regard himself as an exalted Lord.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
Jesus After 2000 Years: What He Really Said and Did (2001)
Hyam Maccoby, scholar of Jewish writings "A Jewish messiah-figure who had no intention of starting a new religion. The real founder of Christianity as a separate religion was Paul."

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1987)
Burton Mack A Cynic-like Jewish teacher. Early Christianity developed away from Jesus as teacher in favor of a mystery-religion-type cult centered on the figure of Jesus as a noble martyr.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (1994)
John P. Meier A lower-middle-class but literate Galilean who "not only presented himself as the eschatological prophet of the coming kingdom of God, not only presented himself as the Elijah-like miracle-worker who made the future kingdom already effective and palpable to his followers, but at the same time presented hmself as a teacher who could tell Israelites how to observe the Law of Moses."

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1 (1991)
E. P. Sanders, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University and former Professor of Exegesis at Oxford

A preacher of "Jewish-restoration eschatology" who was regarded by his disciples as "king."

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
The Historical Figure of Jesus (1996)
Robert H. Stein The same as the "Christ of faith" - a sinless, supernatural Savior and Messiah.
Geza Vermes A Hasid, a Jewish holy man. He was a charismatic teacher, healer, and exorcist who believed in the soon-to-be-realized Kingdom of God.

Main work on the Historical Jesus:
Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels (1981)