The Real Jesus (transcript of TV documentary)

For most of us our picture of Jesus is drawn from the four gospels of the new Testament. But the message that the Gospel writers were conveying was, above all, Paul's message.

The term Gospel Means "good news." That means that if you can get away from the negative definition of the term propaganda, then that is one of the best words you can use to describe what they were doing. They were spreading good news about Jesus with a heavy slant - a very heavy theological slant.

That slant was not just theological, it was also political.

In 66AD, less than a decade after Paul's split with James, the Jews of Palestine rebelled against Rome. After a war lasting four years, they were crushed. At a fortress in Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea, 900 Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. It was at this very time, just as the Jews were being defeated, that the New Testament Gospels began to be written.

The result was very, very significant, because it meant that the Gospels, which were written by the Pauline Church, were written in such a way as to discount any loyalty to Jewish patriotism on the part of the readers for whom the gospels were written, and to say that "we Christians are not rebellious Jews."

The war with the Romans also devastated Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church wing of the Jesus movement was effectively wiped out as a power base. No Gospel from its members survives and yet they were the people who were closest to Jesus.

James had known Jesus as a boy, they had grown up together. He knew him intimately before he had become the saviour of the world. So between them, these people have access to the real historical Jesus. We don't have any access to what they thought, except as we have it through the Pauline community who adapted them.

But because the Gospel writers had to base their adaptations on the earliest accounts, they contain many hints of the original Jesus as known by the Jerusalem church. Using these clues it is possible to piece together how the Jerusalem Church would have written its alternative biography of Jesus.

The story begins with his birth. For Paul's followers, it was a central part of faith that Jesus was the son of God, not man. This required Jesus to be born of a virgin. So Gospel writers like Matthew had to carve out a story which would fit the idea of a virgin birth, an idea which became a central part of Christian belief.

As Matthew tells events, we are up against a problem in so far as God was the father of Jesus, Jesus is the son of God, so how exactly can we reconcile that with the real human Jesus we have? Matthew tells he found the answer when he turned up a prophesy in Isaiah "behold a virgin shall conceive and bare a child," whereas the Jerusalem church, of course, has got James telling them what life was like in his own family and they believe that Jesus' father was Joseph and his mother was Mary and Jesus was born entirely naturally - he was conceived like anybody else.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. On this site, according to the Gospels, Jesus was born of the virgin mother. Luke's Gospel says that Mary and Joseph had travelled here from their home in Nazareth to take part in a Roman census. This is historically implausible. Their was no such census around the time that Jesus was born. But for the gospel writers it was important that Jesus be seen from birth as the saviour prophesied by the old testament.

Bethlehem is were David the once and future king came from. That is where the ideal monarch came from, that is where the new ideal monarch should come from. Jesus, in other words, should be born in Bethlehem no matter where he was born. So Bethlehem is symbolic. Where was Jesus born? Almost certainly Nazareth.

In Matthew's birth story there are further exotic ingredients. The star which hovers over Bethlehem, and the three wise men. But strip away the story tellers' ingredients and we get closer to the more mundane version which the alternative biography would have recorded. No star, no wise men, and an ordinary birth in his home village of Nazareth.

Nazareth, where Jesus was brought up, is in the state of Galilee in Palestine. Unlike so many other parts of the gospel stories, there are sources outside of the gospels, for example Roman historians like Josephus, who help build out the picture of what Palestine was really like in Jesus' time.

One of the problems with the gospels as they come down to us is that we get a picture of bucolic Palestine, itinerant preachers wandering around, curing, raising, walking on water, exorcisms - this is total disinformation, dissimulation. The real picture of Palestine in this period is best found in historians like Josephus. Palestine was a seething revolutionary core.

The Gospels are written about a period when the whole of the Jewish nation was groaning under a very severe and cruel roman occupation and yet the Romans are hardly mentioned. It is as if somebody was to write a history of France in the time of the war between 1940 and 1945 and not even mention the Germans.

Sixty years before Jesus' birth, Roman legions had invaded Judea, a southern province of Palestine. Since then there had been frequent Jewish uprisings. They were mercilessly crushed. Even before Jesus was born thousands of Jews had been executed on Roman crosses. But Paul and his followers were intent on creating a non-Jewish religion which would appeal throughout the Roman empire and be tolerated by it. The gospels contain no criticism of Rome. Indeed the word "Roman" is hardly mentioned at all. The gospels and the images which have ever since stemmed from them portray Jesus as an essentially peaceful, non-political man - a man who deliberately avoids anything that implies confrontation with Rome. However the alternative biography would have presented evidence that Jesus' religion went hand-in-hand with politics.

For a start, Jesus' birthplace - Galilee - which was governed by a Roman puppet ruler called Herod Antipas, was a hotbed of Jewish rebellion. Remote caves near the sea of Galilee gave perfect hiding places for revolutionary Jewish movements to strike at the Roman occupiers in the neighbouring province of Judea. Jesus would also have seen great economic injustice. For some Galilee was booming. The Romans had produced big collective farms and put Jewish collaborators in charge, but while they got rich, the peasants suffered.

Unhappily, to prevent the majority of people in this situation, especially with the tradition that exists "the land belongs to God, it must be handled justly and virtuously because the land is mine says the Lord" in Leviticus. Imagine the Romans hearing that and saying "what! - the land belongs to god! Land is a commodity to be bought and sold, to be bartered - land is an entrepreneurian commodity, not a divine gift!" [So, unhappily] Jewish tradition, in a way, and Roman entrepreneurial commercialisation are on a collision course.

Into this revolutionary atmosphere stepped a figure who would play a key role in the story of Jesus, he was John the Baptist. In the New Testament, the adult Jesus first appears as a disciple of John who baptises him and recognises him as the son of God. But one by one each gospel tries to play down the baptism as if they are desperate to avoid any idea that John may have been Jesus' mentor.

They are all a little bit embarrassed about stories about the baptism. Mark tries to make it very clear that Jesus is in no way subordinate to John as the casual reader might have thought, by having Jesus pronounced God's beloved son with a voice booming from heaven. Matthew even has John protesting "it is not for me to baptise you!" Luke even more incredibly places the baptism of Jesus after John has been arrested and if we read only Luke we wouldn't know that John had baptised Jesus.

But the alternative biography would have seen John as a major figure, and indeed a formative influence on Jesus' life - but what sort of influence? One clue lies in the fact that John was considered so dangerous that he would end up being executed by Herod Antipas, the Romans' puppet ruler in Galilee.

John the Baptist represented a political threat to Herod. The reason was because John the Baptist was a prophet who was prophesying the immanent arrival of the Messiah, and by Messiah he meant not some other-worldly figure but a human kingly royal figure who would come and fulfil the prophesies, particularly the prophesies of Zechariah who had prophesied that the Messiah would come and would defeat the invaders.

In the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem there are more clues to the kind of message John the Baptist was teaching Jesus. The shrine houses a set of 2,000 year-old documents called the dead sea scrolls. They were discovered in 1947 in caves near the settlement of Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. It is believed they contain the writings of a religious sect called the Essenes who lived at Qumran. Scholars of the dead-sea scrolls believe it is possible that there is a link between John and the Essenes.

John is described as a hermit, and John is described as an ascetic. A very similar kind of life lived in the wilderness by the most ascetic branch of the Qumran community.

In addition there are textual links. Both John and the Essenes used the same passage from Isaiah to prophesy the kingdom of God; and in the New Testament, Mark's gospel talks of John "preparing a way in the wilderness," a key phrase used in the scrolls. Though the link can't be proved, the dead-sea scrolls do provide an insight into the kind of apocalyptic message which was current at this time and being passed on by John to Jesus.

The scrolls are militant and very political, they disapprove, for instance, of Roman occupation in Palestine - they are horrified by it. They clearly participate in the war against Rome. There is a document in the scrolls called the "war scroll" which envisages - shows the whole the blueprint for - a final apocalyptic war against all evil, including the Romans, on Earth. The scrolls have a weird idea that in order for them to win this final apocalyptic war against all evil - many scroll scholars have said "oh this is just an idealised theoretical war" I don't think so - in any case in order to win it they need the help of the holy angels who are going to fight with them. That's their secret weapon, their atomic bomb as it were.

Whether or not John emerged specifically from the Essenes, it is clear that his message carried an explosive charge.

What John the Baptist was doing was exciting the ticking time-bomb of apocalyptic expectations all over the region. "When is God going to do this? Now, we're waiting, counting as it were - the countdown has begun - when is God going to ensure a just world?" That's a very dangerous, of course, expectation.

After the execution of John the Baptist, Jesus created his own movement from the foundations laid by John. But before putting any political plan into action, he first recruited his own disciples and followers. Among them was Mary Magdalene, the mysterious sinner who was saved by Jesus and stayed near to him through the rest of his life. Mary would later be the woman who "went to his tomb to anoint his body." The gospels required Jesus, the son of God, to remain pure and celibate, but in the alternative biography Mary may well have turned out to be Jesus' wife.

In Jewish tradition she could not have claimed the body of Jesus unless she had been his spouse. It is highly unlikely that Jesus would have been single and surrounded by males, it is far more likely that he would have been married, the Rabbis were married. They were not celibate, they did not lead single lives.

From its base by lake Galilee, the Jesus movement began to grip the imagination of local peoples. Above all, Jesus became known as a healer and miracle worker. There were other such healers around but Jesus was unusual because he also preached a message about the coming kingdom of God. People began to wonder who exactly Jesus was. In the gospels the moment of revelation comes in what is known as the salutation, when Jesus turns to Peter to ask him that question.

Jesus said to him "who do people say that I am?" and Peter said "well some people say that you are John the Baptist come back to life, and other people say that you are the prophet Elijah." And then Jesus said to Peter "who do you think that I am?" and Peter said "I think you are the Messiah" and Jesus then accepted the role.

But what exactly did "Messiah" mean? To Paul it meant that Jesus was the son of God who had come down to Earth to die on the cross and promise eternal life for mankind. But the Jerusalem church, of which Peter was a leading member, would have had another interpretation.

When Peter saluted Jesus as the messiah, he didn't mean that "you are a divine [garbled] come to save people's souls" he meant "you are the king!" That was the meaning of Messiah at that time. Messiah simply means the anointed one and was the title of every Jewish king who was descended from king David. The word "Christ" is simply the Greek translation of "Messiah." Later on, of course, it too became a divine title, but at this time the Greek title of "Christ" or "Christos" simply meant "the anointed one" and it was a royal title, and when Peter said to Jesus "you are the Christ" what he meant was "you are the king - I am giving you my allegiance as a loyal subject to you as my king."

In the Jerusalem church's alternative biography, Jesus becomes a man for whom religion embraced political action. A man whose mission was to save the Jewish people from oppression and usher in the kingdom of God here on Earth.

The central phrase of Jesus, the controlling phrase of his teaching, was the kingdom of God. Kingdom itself was a civil term, a political term - it was a very deliberate choice. Kingdom of God means how would God run this world if he sat on Caesar's throne.

Kingdom of God is, if you like, more than anything else something which turns the world upside down. It reverses the way that people expect things to behave and Jesus' preaching was an awful lot about subverting things, changing the way that things are - a whole changing of the world order.

Now Jesus prepared to leave Galilee and take his message to Jerusalem, the city where power lay. According to the gospels, he was going as the son of God to bring Jewish leaders back to the path of God. But in the alternative biography, his overriding purpose would have been very different.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem he was making his bid for the throne of the Jews. He was making a bid for power.

Jerusalem - the probable year, 34AD. As Jesus arrives there was high tension. Half a million Jewish pilgrims had gathered for Passover, the festival which celebrated their liberation from the Egyptians. And the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, braced himself for trouble. In the gospels, Pilate is a merciful man - a good Roman - but what was he really like?

We do know a lot about Pontius Pilate, apart from the Gospels. We know about him from Philo, the Jewish philosopher of the first century, and Josephus, the Jewish historian. Pilate was very ruthless, especially with crowd control. So now Jesus is in Jerusalem, it is at Passover. Pilate would have had very hard and fast orders for this dangerous tinderbox situation.

According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah was expected to arrive at Passover. So at that time the guardians of law and order had to be extra vigilant.

The Romans had abolished the Jewish kingship, the Jewish monarchy. Anyone who said "I am the Jewish king" was more or less proclaiming themselves to be a rebel against the power of Rome.

The gospels of the New Testament record the events of the following days as a plot by Jewish leaders to execute Jesus. However the alternative Jerusalem church biography would have pointed the finger of blame elsewhere.

Instead of the Jews being the villains of the story, as they are in the Pauline gospels, the Romans would be the villains of the story, and so instead of having a Pilate who is so struck by the wonderful spirituality of Jesus that he is so reluctant to execute him we would have a Pilate who was more similar to the real Pilate, the historical Pilate, who we know to have been a vicious and rapacious butcher.

After his arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus upped the stakes. He entered the temple, the heart of the Jerusalem political and religious establishment, and drove the money-brokers and traders from its precincts. The gospels assert that the attack on the temple was directed at the Jewish leaders who presided over it. The alternative biography would say that it was in fact an attack on the Romans who were the temple's true controllers, while the Jewish priests were just their puppets.

The temple, of course, was the house of God. But it was also controlled by the Romans who knew exactly that it was the centre of Judaism. The high priest, for example, had to collaborate with the Romans. So [it was] a deeply symbolic rejection of the temple, not because of any impurity with regard to himself or its own religion, but because of its association with Rome, because the temple is now the seat of collaboration - not the house of God.

Reports of the trouble being caused by Jesus alerted the Roman authorities. Jesus had to be taken off the streets, but first they had to find him. The New testament says that the disciple Judas betrayed Jesus. In the alternative biography that betrayal would be seen as fiction.

The idea that Jesus would have been betrayed by one of his closest disciples would actually have reflected on them personally because they were the disciples. Indeed the leaders of the Jerusalem church were Jesus' disciples. Why did this story become part of the story of the Pauline gospels? I think the reason is it was a mythological necessity.

Every great legend has someone who functions in the role of the scapegoat. Someone who betrays. Without betrayal the great protagonist of the story does not become the martyred hero.

Now the natural person for this role was Judas, because his name Judas was the same as the name of the Jewish people and the Jewish people had been cast for that role in the gospel story as the people who betrayed Jesus.

Jesus was now under arrest. According to the New Testament he was tried first by the Jewish priests for the blasphemy for calling himself the son of God. He was then tried by the Romans for political subversion. The gospels say it is the Jewish priests, not the Romans, who want rid of Jesus. They persuade an unwilling Pontius Pilate to execute him. But the Jewish punishment for blasphemy would have been stoning, whereas crucifixion was a purely Roman means of killing. In the alternative biography Jesus' execution becomes a political, Roman decision.

The Romans crucified for anything that was subversive to the Roman order - the Roman law and order. So it was a highly symbolic, public act of state terrorism because in a way, like putting the head on Tower Bridge, except that the whole body was hung up there, as it were on a gibbet for everyone to see.

Our Christ dies a revolutionary death in Palestine. The slight-of-hand in the material that we have changed a Roman execution of thieves into a Jewish plot. The New Testament's attempt to put the blame for Jesus' death on the Jews takes one final turn. Pilate makes a last offer to spare Jesus.

Barabbas' first name was also Jesus. In the alternative biography the Jewish mob's turn to release him would be seen as pure invention. The story arose because there was a strongly attested tradition that when Jesus was arrested and in the custody of Pilate, the Jewish crowd shouted for his release, which they would naturally do because he would be a very popular figure, a messiah figure, and this tradition was so strong it couldn't be entirely expunged from the record and it leads one to suspect that there has been some splitting here. In other words that Jesus Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth are really the same person historically.

After his death Jesus is placed in a stone tomb by a mysterious stranger, Joseph of Arimathia. This later becomes the stage for the crucial moment in the whole story - Jesus' resurrection. But in fact, crucifixion almost always meant there was no burial.

In the punishment of crucifixion, they would leave the body there for the scavenging dogs, or the crows - that was part of it. And it is significant that of the thousands of Jews who were crucified around Jerusalem in the first century, in all of this time we've found only one crucified skeleton. And that's a graphic reminder that burial would be an extraordinary event, not the usual event after crucifixion.

According to the New Testament, an exception was made for Jesus. [This is] the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, which Christians revere today as the site of his tomb. It was here that Jesus' followers arrived to anoint his dead body only to discover the tomb was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead. For both Paul and the Jerusalem church, the resurrection was fundamental to their view of Jesus, but they understood it differently. To Paul, Jesus' death was the whole point of his life.

Paul is not interested at all in the history of Jesus. For Paul the history of Jesus begins with the night before his death and finishes three days later with his resurrection and the real Jesus is totally ignored by Paul, and he says "all I want to know is Christ and Christ crucified" consequently also risen.

But for the Jerusalem church, Jesus' death on the cross had meant failure. The Messiah was supposed to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity here on Earth.

The Jerusalem church had a problem - why did he die on the cross? In the case of other messiah figures that was the end of their movement. If they were executed by the Romans that was the end of their pretensions. The Jesus movement, however continued because the belief arose among his followers that he was not dead, that he had been bought back to life by a process of resurrection which was a miracle.

The New Testament records that the disciple Peter, Jesus' brother James, and eventually all twelve disciples believed that they had encountered the risen Jesus. But in the alternative biography how would they have viewed his resurrection?

They didn't think that this made him divine because no human being could be divine, Judaism doesn't allow the worship of any human being as divine, that is an infringement of the first of the ten commandments, but they believed that he had been bought back to life and he would shortly come among them to continue his mission, which was the same as before, to liberate the Jews and to inaugurate what was called the kingdom of God.

So the alternative Jerusalem church biography might have seen Jesus like this: A man born naturally into a Jewish family who observed Jewish law. A charismatic healer and preacher, recognised by the disciple Peter as the Jewish Messiah bringing liberation on Earth. A man who saw religion and politics as one. And a man who re-appeared after his death to carry on the liberation fight. And this may be the lost biography the very first Christians were given.

We have a lot of early Christians continuing to go to Jerusalem for festivals, they would have met with people like Peter and James and the other apostles still in Jerusalem and they would have heard this story. It wasn't in any way a marginal story, this one in Jerusalem, it was the one which was perhaps best known for the first generation or so of the Christian church.

But as Paul's version began to catch on all over the Roman empire, the role of the earlier leaders, in particular Jesus' brother James, began to be undermined. It was not just James, we find that all the disciples have a poor press in the gospels - they are all very stupid, they don't understand what Jesus was talking about and, I think they weren't stupid, I think they knew what Jesus was talking about better than anyone else, better than Paul.

Of course Christians believe it was the will of God that Paul's version would become the basis for a new world religion. As for the successors of James and the Jerusalem church by the second century they had evolved into a small Jewish sect called the Ebionites which was viewed as heretical by the mainstream Christian church. But if they had won the battle for the biography of Jesus, there would be no such thing as Christianity.

The Jerusalem version is a much less potent message than Paul's version because it is so closely tied to the historical Jesus, whereas Paul's mission is based on the view that Jesus was the human form of God. But the Pauline picture has dominated Christianity for 2,000 years very effectively, and has been enormously powerful, but it is ironic that those who knew Jesus best and give us the most reliable Jesus, of what he was like, in the end their mission turns out to be treated as heresy.


Ebionites (Hebrew ebyon, "poor"), name applied in the 2nd and 3rd centuries to a group of Christians of Jewish stock who retained much of Judaism in their beliefs. The sect is supposed to have originated when the old church of Jerusalem was dispersed by an edict of the Roman emperor Hadrian in AD 135; some of the Jewish Christians migrated westward across the River Jordan into Peraea (now in Jordan), cutting themselves off from the main body of the Christian church. They adopted a conservative Pharisaic creed at first, but after the 2nd century, some of them espoused a mixture of Essenism, Gnosticism, and Christianity. According to the 2nd-century Christian prelate and writer Irenaeus, they differed from orthodox Christians in denying the divinity of Christ and in considering Paul an apostate for having declared the supremacy of Christian teaching over the Mosaic law. The 3rd-century Christian writer and theologian Origen classified the Ebionites in two groups, those who believed in the virgin birth and those who rejected it. Both the Sabbath and the Christian Lord's Day were holy to them, and they expected the establishment of a messianic kingdom in Jerusalem. Remnants of the sect were known to have existed in Palestine and Syria until the 5th century.

"Ebionites," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia.



Dr. Mark Goodacre, Theology department, Birmingham University

Prof. Hyam Maccaboy , Leeds university

Prof. Michael Goulder, Theology department, Birmingham University

Prof. John Dominic Crossan, de Paul University, Chicago

Prof. Robert Eisman, Chicago State university, Long Beach

Prof. Geza Vermes, University of Oxford

Reverend Sandra Rushing, Author "The Magdalene Legacy"