The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Post-Axial Thought

The Historical Jesus


Painting of Mary and Jesus by Pierre Mignard
Painting of Mary and Child Jesus,
La vierge aux raisins
by Pierre Mignard, 1640.

“If one wishes to understand the historical Jesus and early Christianity one must understand first century Judaism. During this historic era the Roman occupiers of the land were particularly oppressive and there was much opposition to them particularly in the Galilee.”
(Rabbi Moshe Reiss, PhD.)

Not much is known about the historical Jesus since nothing was written down by him or about him during his lifetime. It is believed that he was born around 4 BCE and died in 30 CE.  He was a Jew, born probably in Nazareth in Galilee and he probably had brothers and sisters. According to scholars such as Rabbi Moshe Reiss, quoted above, it is very likely that “He had a typical Galilean Jewish education including studying the Hebrew Bible, the traditions of the people after the biblical period and he undoubtedly went to synagogue. One can safely assume his family as religious Jews kept the commandments; dietary laws, circumcision, tithing, laws of purity and the pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  Jesus dressed like a Jew, prayed like a Jew, taught and argued in parables like a Jewish Rabbi and was crucified as were many first century Jewish radicals.

Map of Northern Israel
Map showing modern-day Nazareth in northern Israel

He was an itinerant teacher who attracted crowds and apparently performed miracles. By all accounts he was a charismatic teacher who spoke with an oral brilliance. He was in many ways both typical of his times, and yet extraordinary in his religious convictions and beliefs, in his scholarship of the Biblical literature, and in the fervency with which he lived what he taught.

We are told that he had a number of disputes with Jewish religious leaders, probably Shammaite Pharisees (see below), who disputed with him on the law and who, in cooperation with the priestly aristocracy, the Sadducees, handed him over to the Romans who had him crucified.

Photo of the stone tomb of Shammai
Photo of the tomb of Shammai in the Meron
river in Israel. Shammai was the founder of
one of the two major Pharisaic schools. There
were two schools: those of Hillel and Shammai.
The teachings of the school of Hillel were
ultimately taken as authoritative.

Jesus appears on the scene at a time reminiscent of the tumultuous times of Axial Sages. The oppressive rule of the Roman Empire caused rebellion and a large number of political and sectarian groups called for different kinds of reform, with different ideas about the individual and their country’s future.

Prophets, Messianic Zealots, Hellenists, Romanists, Sadducees and others, all contributed to the unrest of the times. One of the most progressive groups was the Pharisees, who were repelled by violence and who emphasized that God was present in every thought and action.  Atonement for one's sins could be attained through acts of kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Rabbi Hillel (c. 65 BCE - 20 CE), who came to Palestine from Babylonia, was perhaps the greatest of their number. As did the Axial sages before him, he advocated the importance of personal responsibility: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

Photo of the Tomb of Hillel
Photo of the entrance to the Tomb of Hillel the
Elder, as it was around 1900.

Similarities between the sayings of Hillel and those spoken by Jesus in the New Testament have been noted by scholars. Here are examples:

One of the famous Talmudic stories tells that the Pharisee Shammai – a fundamentalist and opposed to Hillel's views – was visited by a pagan who promised to convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him everything that was in the Torah while he stood on one leg.

Shammai dismissed him angrily, but when the joker went to Hillel, Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

The same idea is found spoken by Jesus in Matthew 7:12 when he says “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Hillel is quoted as saying, “Pass not judgment upon thy neighbor until thou hast put thyself in his place. Which is again familiar to New Testament readers where Jesus says:  “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37).

Hillel also said: “Whoever would make a name loses the nameā€¦ whoever makes use of the crown perishes.” And Jesus said: “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 7:33).

Hillel and his group believed in the Resurrection – for they believed that Elijah had ascended to Heaven – and were flexible in their interpretation of the Law. They accepted Gentile converts, taught that one should “love peace, seek peace, love mankind and thus lead them to the law.”

Shammai and his associates disagreed with them on this and on almost every aspect of the Law; so when Hillel died around 10 - 20 CE and the Shammaite Pharisees took control of the Temple, things changed.

Hillel who died when Jesus was young … influenced strongly many facets of Jesus’ theological and ethical teachings. This does not imply that Jesus was a student or disciple of Hillel; Hillel’s views were well known and embodied as one of the more acceptable Jewish views of Halakha (Law) particularly among the populace…” (Rabbi Moshe Reiss, PhD.

Photo of the ruins of main building at Qumran
Photo of partial l remains of the main building
at Qumran, a plateau in the Judean Desert
along the Dead Sea. Some modern
scholars argue that the Essenes inhabited
the settlement at Qumran.

One of the groups we know about was the Essenes, a philosophic and religious sect, so distraught with the way things were in Jerusalem that some left for the desert and set up a community in Qumran.

Satellite map of the Dead Sea area
Satellite image of the
Dead Sea area
showing Qumran

We know about this community mostly from the Dead Sea Scrolls, a group of 930 documents dated from 250 BCE - 50 CE and found in the mid twentieth century in caves near what is believed to be the community ruins.

According to Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program, University of Texas at Austin, it is a mistake to think that the Essenes believed in an imminent end of the world. “They used language like ‘the end’ or ‘the last things’ or ‘the last days’, but what they mean is the present evil age is coming to an end.” This was in line with Jewish eschatology of the time. Many believed that the end of Roman rule and the end of corruption was imminent and would bring with it a new kingdom, not necessarily accompanied by a Messianic figure. 

“At Qumran, on the other hand, among the Dead Sea Scrolls we hear not of just one Messiah, but at least two,” continues Dr. White, “Some of their writings talk about a Messiah of David, who is a kind of kingly figure who will come to lead the war. But there is also a Messiah of Aaron, a priestly figure, who will come to restore the Temple at Jerusalem to its proper purity and worship of God.”

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