Map of ancient Israel

Historical Jesus FAQ by Jorn Barger

Jorn Barger January 2002 (updated Feb 2002)

Antipas's Galilee is yellow; Roman roads are brown [main source] (some roads are probably post-30AD)

Estimated populations (very uncertain): Jerusalem 30k, Tiberias and Sepphoris 15k, Capernaum 5k, Nazareth <1k

Rulers of Israel

What was Galilee like when Jesus was growing up there?

By the time of Herod the Great's death in 4BC, his forceful personality (and his secret police!) had dominated Galilee for the last 44 years.

Herod had come from a line of Arab rulers who had been compelled to convert to Judaism by the Maccabees only around 130BC, but by 67BC Herod's (very rich) father Antipater had zeroed in on a vulnerability in the Maccabee dynasty - Hyrcanus II, by name - winning the role of his prime minister. A timely alliance with Julius Caesar then increased his clout enough to place 25yo Herod as governor of Galilee in 48BC.

Galilee had been seized from the Syrians and itself forcibly converted to Judaism only around 103BC, the Maccabees viewing this as a rightful restoration of part of the ancient kingdom of Israel, wiped out by the Assyrians six centuries earlier. The Jewish population of Galilee had been gradually rebuilding since that time, though many had to be evacuated in 163BC in the face of Seleucid Antisemitism.

Rome had defeated the Maccabees in 63BC and returned much of that newly-conquered territory to Syria (now itself under Roman control), but Galilee was left under Hyrcanus II, whom the Romans demoted from king to 'ethnarch'.

Herod's first act as governor was to crush a band of Jewish nationalists who'd been fighting to reclaim some of 'their' lost territory, east of Galilee. Herod efficiently tracked down and killed these rebels, led by Hezekiah, and then dramatically faced down the Jewish court in Jerusalem when they accused him of executing Jews without a trial.

He maintained this firm extrajudicial grip for the rest of his career-- with the help of a secret police force who caused troublemakers to quietly disappear. But after Herod's death this same Hezekiah's son rose up for long-delayed revenge and captured (briefly) the Galilean capital, Sepphoris, from Herod's son Antipas.

This was just a few miles from Nazareth, so that tiny community must have been traumatized when Roman troops from the north razed Sepphoris and sold this new generation of Jewish-nationalist rebels into slavery.

Josephus claims that in 6AD a Galilean named Judas founded a sect that refused to pay taxes to Rome, on the grounds that taxes infringed on their god-given liberty.

Galilean's spoke Aramaic with a barbarous accent, and had a reputation as good fighters but often troublesome to deal with. The southern half (Lower Galilee) was comparatively prosperous and populous, with a good climate for agriculture.

How Jewish was Jesus?

Galilee had hosted a mix of Jews and gentiles (Aramaeans, Itureans, Phoenicians, and Greeks, some with antisemitic tendencies) until annexed by Aristobulus I in 103BC and forcibly converted to Judaism. That Rome left Galilee under Jewish control in 63BC implies it was predominantly Jewish by that date.

Judaism itself had many 'dialects' at this time, possibly including: Ebionites, Hellenists, Hemerobaptists, Herodians, Essenes, Pharisees, Galileans, Genists, Masbateians, Merists, Nazarenes, Sadducees, Samaritans, and Scribes. [cite].

Archaeologists estimate that Nazareth was founded about 200BC, and the style of tombs suggest it was always predominantly Jewish. [hj16] The men of Nazareth probably met for Sabbath observances, but didn't have a dedicated synagogue. (Sepphoris was too far away to be visited on the Sabbath-- 2000 cubits or about 3000 feet was the longest trip allowed.)

Sepphoris was rebuilt by Antipas as his capital after 4BC (and renamed Autocratoris), but seems to have been predominantly Jewish, though with definite Greco-Roman sympathies.

Jesus was surely circumcised.

Who were Jesus's parents?

If James was indeed Jesus's brother (or even a cousin), he could have been an extremely reliable source about Jesus's family background.

But Mark 6:3 refers to Jesus as 'son of Mary' instead of 'son of Joseph' which would normally imply his father was unknown. (Mary was said to come from Sepphoris.) An illegitimate child would have been ostracized as a 'mamzer' at this time.

The Talmud claims Jesus's actual father was a Roman soldier called 'Panthera', but this tradition is unattested before 150AD (and it's debatable whether a different Jesus - Jesus the Egyptian - was intended). (It's easy to imagine that Mary might have been raped by a soldier when Sepphoris was razed in 4BC.)

Another tradition claims Joseph had a first wife before Mary. And Joseph is believed to have died before Jesus was 12.

"Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common amongst women"

When was Jesus born?

The 25December date was first cited around 335AD (so it's not remotely credible).

The gospels of Matthew and Luke date his birth to the time of Herod, ie before 4BC, but there's no reason to credit this. Luke adds that Quirinius held a census around the time of Jesus's birth, but that census was really in 6AD, and the connection is even less credible than the reference to Herod.

If we guess he died around 30AD (+/-5), and we guess he was around 30yo when he died (+/-5), then he was likely born between 10BC and 10AD.

Was Jesus born in Bethlehem?

Crossan thinks not-- this story was added much later to 'fulfill' biblical prophecies.

Was Jesus from Nazareth?

Crossan accepts this; Grant [jrw107] thinks maybe not; but even Grant accepts he was from Galilee-- maybe Capernaum.

Nazareth is suspiciously unmentioned even in records that should know of it (eg Josephus), and it's possible the term 'Nazarene' had another origin altogether. The word 'Nazarite' is similar in English but not in Hebrew (Netzarim instead of Natzrat)

What name was Jesus given?

"Yeshu'a is the Aramaic corruption of Hebrew Yehoshu'a (YHWH saves) which the English mispronounced as Joshua... Galileans had a tendency to drop initial and final vowel sounds. So Elazar was pronounced Lazar and Yeshu'a was shortened to Yeshu (ye-SHOO)... The final 's' was originally added as the normal Greek ending of any Semitic masculine name that ended in a vowel sound, since in Greek only feminine names end in a vowel. The 'J' was introduced as the standard long form 'I' in the gothic script of the high medieval period." Mahlon Smith

"Yeshua was the fifth most common Jewish name, 4 out of the 28 Jewish High-Priests in Jesus' time were called Yeshua."

Did Jesus have siblings?

The evidence for a brother James is pretty clear (though he may have been a cousin, or just a symbolic 'brother'), plus a cousin Simeon and uncle Cleophas. Mark 6:3 claims three other brothers: Joseph, Jude and Simon.

What sort of education did Jesus have?

Supposedly, universal education for Jewish boys from age six wasn't initiated until 63AD, by Joshua ben Gimla. So Jesus's early education was probably mostly in the hands of his father, and the other men of the village. Nazareth had a single spring for water that must have been an important meeting place.

The men would discuss the weather, the crops, their herds, politics, religion, and history. They would pass on the sayings they'd heard, many from the Old Testament. Jesus would have learned early versions of the Kaddish (mourner's prayer) and the 18 blessings.

Sepphoris was only an hour's walk away, and Jesus would often have accompanied his father when he had business there, or religious observances. But on the Sabbath that trip was too far to go.

The Dead Sea Scrolls may give an indication of how well-known various Jewish texts were around this time-- Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah rating highest.

The leading Pharisee, Hillel, probably died around 10AD, so Jesus was probably very familiar with his (liberal) teachings. The teachings of Jesus ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus or Sirach) were also popular.

What language(s) did Jesus speak?

Aramaic would have been Jesus's native tongue. But Greek was almost as popular and he was likely bilingual, Aramaic and Greek. (The Romans used Greek not Latin in most of their territories.) Hebrew might have been a third, learned language.

All early Christian testimony was in Greek, with only occasional quotations in Aramaic.

Since Greek was more common than Hebrew, Jesus should have been more familiar with the Greek translation of the Old Testament-- the 'Septuagint'-- than the Hebrew original.

Did Jesus know Jerusalem?

The round trip from Galilee to Jerusalem for special occasions like Passover would have required at least a week of travel. It seems unlikely that the whole family could have gone, but Jesus might well have made the trip once or more.

Was Jesus a carpenter?

Crossan [boc349] points out that Matthew 13:55 shifts Mark's 6:3 'tekton' onto Joseph, which might indicate embarrassment (ie authenticity). The Greek word could also refer to building with stone (wood was scarce in the region).

It's been suggested he built or repaired boats by the Sea of Galilee, or plows and yokes for farmers.

Nazareth was probably too small to support any sort of fulltime tekton, so Jesus and/or Joseph may have traveled to Sepphoris to find work or sell their crafts.

Antipas financed a major construction project at Tiberias around 15-19 AD, which could have provided work for most of the tektons in Galilee, including Jesus. He would have been paid very little-- at most 2 sesterces per day. [boc179] (The equivalent purchasing power today might be around $1.75 per day.)

There was some controversy because of an ancient burial ground on the site. [jrw103] When the city was completed, the local job-opportunities for tektons would have plummeted-- Jesus and his co-workers would have been thrown upon their own limited resources.

What model might the Greco-Roman Cynics have provided?

"Both are populists, appealing to the ordinary people; both are life-style preachers, advocating their position not only by word but by deed, not only in theory but in practice; both use dress and equipment to symbolize dramatically their message. But he is rural, they are urban; he is organizing a communal movement, they are following an individual philosophy; and their symbolism demands knapsack and staff, his no-knapsack and no-staff. Maybe Jesus is what peasant Jewish Cynicism looked like." [jarb122]

"The Cynics... were itinerant preachers of a philosophy of freedom from every constraint and a life lived with minimal requirements 'according to nature.' Flouting social convention, they derived their name (kynikoi,"dog-like") from an epithet applied to one of their founders, "the Dog" Diogenes (of Sinope, 4th-cent. BCE), who went about Athens doing in public everything that a dog might do, all the while hurling insults on his contemporaries... One time while masturbating in the market place he said, 'Would that it were possible to relieve hunger simply by rubbing the belly'"

What other religious and political rebellions were taking place around this time in Galilee and environs?

Crossan lists about 30 cited by Josephus, sorted into four categories: [hj451] (dates unreliable/approximate)

47BC: banditry of Ezekias et al
37BC: banditry of Galilean cave bandits
37BC-4BC: (reign of Herod)
4BC: protest to Archelaus about taxes and prisoners
4BC: messianic claims of Judas in Galilee, of Simon in Perea,
  and of Athronges in Judea
26AD: protest to Pilate about icons
c30AD: protest to Pilate about use of Temple funds
c30AD: prophetic claims of John the Baptist
35-55AD: banditry of Eleazar
36AD: prophetic claims of 'Samaritan Prophet'
40AD: protest to Petronius about statue in Temple
45AD: prophetic claims of Theudas
45AD: banditry of Tholomaeus et al
50AD: protest to Cumanus about soldiers' impiety
50AD: banditry near Beth-horon
c55AD: prophetic claims of unnamed prophets
c55AD: prophetic claims of 'Egyptian Prophet'
61AD: prophetic claims of unnamed prophet
61AD: banditry of unnamed bandits
65AD: protest to Cestius Gallus about governor
65AD: banditry of unnamed bandits
66AD: banditry of Josephus et al in Galilee
66AD: banditry of 'Jesus' near Ptolemais
66AD: messianic claims of Menahem
68AD: banditry of Zealots in Jerusalem
69AD: messianic claims of Simon
70AD: prophetic claims of unnamed prophet
73AD: prophetic claims of Jonathan the Weaver

What was Jesus's relationship to John the Baptist?

Crossan thinks Jesus was indeed baptized by John, and followed him for some time before starting his own ministry. [PBS] Josephus concurs that John was beheaded, but the date is very uncertain (24-37 AD). [Josephus]

The biblical precedent for baptism in the Jordan was 2 Kings 5 (Elisha healing Naaman's skin condition, aka 'leprosy').

Crossan thinks Jesus ultimately rejected John's eschatology.

"What was special or particular about John the Baptist in comparison with all other water purifications in contemporary Judaism was that

Was Jesus an Essene?

This is widely argued, but implausible.

The Essenes were extreme Jewish fundamentalists who had rejected the Hasmonean dynasty around 140BC, leaving Jerusalem to settle near the Dead Sea. (The Hasmoneans were not traditionally qualified for the high priesthood.) There's no credible link with the teachings of Jesus.

Was Jesus a magician?

Morton Smith argues that Jesus fits easily into the contemporary pattern of miracle-working magicians, healing by 'casting out demons'. The Talmud identifies him with Jesus the Egyptian, who studied magic in Egypt and had magical words tattooed on his skin. (Smith thinks this possible, and points out that Paul may also have had these tattoos.)

An early form of Kabbalah-magic had emerged before Jesus's time, termed 'merkabah' (or merkevah), or meditation upon the chariot throne of God.

A healer?

A contemporary instance of magic: In 19AD, just 250 miles north of Galilee, the emperor's adopted son Germanicus, age 34, was hastened to his grave by malicious sorcery, according to Tacitus: "...there were found hidden in the floor and in the walls disinterred remains of human bodies, incantations and spells, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on leaden tablets, half-burnt cinders smeared with blood, and other horrors by which in popular belief souls are devoted to the infernal deities." (See also Graves's "I, Claudius" ch20.)

Where did Jesus teach?

"The geographical information we have, such as it is, suggests that Jesus restricted his activity for the most part to the Jewish villages of rural Galilee."

Capernaum synagogue?

If he'd had a lot of followers, they probably would have been quickly suppressed by Antipas in Galilee, but they weren't (so far as we know) so he probably didn't.

Some of his Galilean followers may have ventured north into Syria after his death.

What did Jesus teach?

Crossan triangulates the oldest teachings as the 'Common Sayings Tradition'-- those shared by the Gospel of Thomas.

Seek and ye shall find; The kingdom is within you; There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed; I have come to cast conflicts upon the earth: fire, sword, war; You see the sliver in your friend's eye, but you don't see the timber in your own eye; What you will hear in your ear, in the other ear proclaim from your rooftops;

No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, nor does one put it in a hidden place-- rather, one puts it on a lamp stand so that all who come and go will see its light; If a blind person leads a blind person, both of them will fall into a hole; Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about what you are going to wear-- you're much better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin; Whoever has something in hand will be given more, and whoever has nothing will be deprived of even the little they have;

Whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven; A slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other; Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's kingdom; Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters, and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me;

Congratulations to you when you are hated and persecuted; Congratulations to those who go hungry, so the stomach of the one in want may be filled; Seek his treasure that is unfailing, that is enduring, where no moth comes to eat and no worm destroys; Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but human beings have no place to lie down and rest; If you have money, don't lend it at interest-- rather, give it to someone from whom you won't get it back;

When people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them; I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard; Heaven's kingdom is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky;

If the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives and will not let the thief break into their house and steal their possessions-- as for you, then, be on guard against the world, prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can't find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come;

The Pharisees and the scholars have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them-- they have not entered nor have they allowed those who want to enter to do so;

Grapes are not harvested from thorn trees, nor are figs gathered from thistles, for they yield no fruit-- good persons produce good from what they've stored up;

bad persons produce evil from the wickedness they've stored up in their hearts, and say evil things, for from the overflow of the heart they produce evil; From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted - but I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the kingdom and will become greater than John; Two will recline on a couch; one will die, one will live; The crop is huge but the workers are few, so beg the harvest boss to dispatch workers to the fields;

Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in soft clothes, like your rulers and your powerful ones? They are dressed in soft clothes, and they cannot understand truth; Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don't you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?; The Father's kingdom is like a woman.

She took a little leaven, hid it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread; The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, 'I love you more than the ninety-nine.'

A person was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. The slave went to the first and said to that one, 'My master invites you.' That one said, 'Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.' The slave went to another and said to that one, 'My master has invited you.'

That one said to the slave, 'I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.' The slave went to another and said to that one, 'My master invites you.' That one said to the slave, 'My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.' The slave went to another and said to that one, 'My master invites you.'

That one said to the slave, 'I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.' The slave returned and said to his master, 'Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.' The master said to his slave, 'Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.' Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.

Did Jesus's teachings about wealth imply a personal background of poverty?


"Seek his treasure that is unfailing, that is enduring, where no moth comes to eat and no worm destroys."

"A slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other."

"Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about what you are going to wear-- you're much better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin."

"Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's kingdom."

"Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father."

"Congratulations to those who go hungry, so the stomach of the one in want may be filled."

"If you have money, don't lend it at interest-- rather, give it to someone from whom you won't get it back."

"Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but human beings have no place to lay down and rest."

"Whoever has something in hand will be given more, and whoever has nothing will be deprived of even the little they have."

Crossan argues that Antipas's building projects in Sepphoris and Tiberias must have drained and even displaced Galilean peasants, but I don't think the historical record supports this.

Did Jesus respect traditional Jewish law?

This can be argued either way, but the nays seem to have a stronger case: "his disobservance of the purity-code... his Sabbath-breaking, his rejection of the lex talionis [eye for an eye], his abrogation of the dietary laws, his teachings against divorce, his interference with a stoning, and his declaration the law and the prophets are now old news, replaced by the preaching of the kingdom of God."

Who was Paul?

Between the years 37AD and 57AD (approximately), a Jew named Saul (his Hebrew name) or Paul (his Latinised name) traveled around the northeastern Mediterranean preaching Christianity. He had been born 500 miles north of Jerusalem in Tarsus, to a father who was (supposedly) a Roman citizen, and he was (supposedly) trained as a Pharisee. He was converted to belief in Christ on the road to Damascus, where he had (supposedly) been sent by Jerusalem's high priest, to persecute the new Christian community there.

What was the Didache?

The Didache (Greek 'the training') is a rule book for some early Christian communities, discovered in 1873 in a monastery library in Constantinople. Supporting fragments dated to before 400AD have also been discovered in Egypt.

Crossan believes parts may date from c50AD, representing a very close approximation of Jesus's historical teachings as in Galilee.

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