Was Jesus a Jewish freedom fighter?


For many Jewish people the kind of arguments presented on this website are invalid because as far as they are concerned the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular are unreliable documents.  There is a great deal of collusion between liberal Jewish and Christian scholars who undermine the message of the Bible and present an entirely different interpretation of the events recorded in it.  This is popular with the media, especially the BBC and Channel 4, which appear to have an ongoing campaign to create unbelief in the Bible.   

Generally these TV stations like to put out programmes especially at times of Christian festivals to undermine the faith.  A programme broadcast on Channel 4 before Christmas 2000, entitled ‘The Real Jesus’, presented such views and provoked me to write an answer to its claims.  I sent this to the TV station and the academics responsible and challenged them to discuss the issues, but received virtually no response.  What follows is the text of my article.

According to this programme Christianity arose out of a split in the ‘Jesus Movement’ between Paul and James, the brother of Jesus.  The programme questioned the record of events we have in the New Testament and proposed an entirely different scenario in its place.  This was based mainly on the theory put forward by the writer, Hyam Maccoby, that the real Jesus was a Jewish freedom fighter who was executed after a failed uprising against the Romans.  

A brief summary of the alternative Jesus presented by the programme.

Jesus came from a poor family who were probably illiterate and yet were also strict Jews and observers of Jewish law. Jesus was born in the normal way and grew up under the Roman occupation of Palestine, which was seething with revolutionary fervour.  He was himself caught up in this fervour, largely under the influence of John the Baptist, who combined religion with politics and was leading a political movement as well as ‘preparing the way of the Lord’ by his preaching.  John was in the tradition of the Essenes,  and proclaimed a coming ‘Messiah’ who would not be offering spiritual redemption from sin, but political deliverance from the Romans which would in turn lead to the ‘kingdom of God’, God’s righteous rule on earth.  Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler, considered him a threat and had him executed.  

After John’s death, Jesus began to capture the imagination of the people.  He was not only a successful political leader, but also earned a reputation as a healer and a miracle worker.  His followers were a revolutionary band of which Peter was a member.  When Peter declared that Jesus was the ‘Christ’ / Messiah, he did not mean that he was a divine figure, but the promised Davidic king who would be anointed with a mission to free the Jewish people from oppression and usher in the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ preaching was subversive saying how God would change the world order.   He was married to Mary Magdalene.

His rebellion reached its climax with his entrance to Jerusalem, which was a bid for power and a challenge to Roman authority.  The Jewish zealots were on his side, and his attack on the Temple was the beginning of the uprising, aiming at the Roman occupation of the Holy Place.  The Romans decided to take Jesus off the streets and had him crucified under the brutal governor, Pontius Pilate, as was their way of dealing with dissent.  Those executed were left on the cross, as a deterrent against any would be followers who might want to carry on the rebellion.  

Jesus was not buried, as this never happened to crucifixion victims.  Yet despite this his followers maintained a belief that he would rise again from the dead and rekindle the process of rebellion.  Those who held this view would continue as the Jerusalem church led by Jesus’ brother James.   Despite the non-appearance of a resurrected Jesus re-kindling the rebellion against Rome, this faction of his movement kept their faith in him for at least another 30 years.  

Their problem was that another version of the story was concocted by a late interloper to the movement called Paul. There arose a great struggle for control of Jesus’ legacy between Paul and James.  Paul had a view of Jesus, which directly conflicted, with James’ view.   According to Paul, Jesus was a divine figure who came into the world by virgin birth, proclaimed a message, which centred on a spiritual experience with God and rose again from the dead to give eternal life to believers.  According to James, Jesus was born in the normal way, and was an ordinary man, whose message was about a political change in the way the world is run.

Paul began to preach his message to Gentiles, unlike James who only recruited Jews into the movement.  However despite the fact that James and Paul were apparently preaching different messages, James seemed willing to co-operate with Paul.   James’ main concern was over the keeping of Jewish dietary laws and circumcision.  Their dispute came to a head in AD 50 as a result of which James backed down on his insistence that Gentile recruits to the movement should be circumcised and keep dietary laws.  James agreed that Gentiles did not need to keep these laws, but Jews should.  Two separate missions resulted, one led by James to Jews and the other by Paul to non-Jews.  

In AD 58 there was a further conflict between James and Paul.  Paul came to Jerusalem with a donation he had collected from churches in Asia.  James refused to accept the donation, making a new charge against Paul, that he was teaching Jews not to keep the Torah.  James told him to prove his loyalty to the Torah by going to the Temple and taking part in purification ceremonies.  Paul did so, following his principle of being a ‘Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks’, even though he did not believe in what he was doing in his heart.  In the Temple he was accused of being the man who was inciting Jews to break the Torah.  A riot ensued in which Paul was protected by the Romans as he claimed Roman citizenship.  This was seen as a betrayal of the Jewish people and resulted in the total split between Paul and James. Paul won the ensuing struggle and the New Testament story was written from his perspective.  James’ perspective was written out of the story, and his followers were branded heretics, eventually becoming the sect of the Ebionites.  If James had won the battle for supremacy there would have been no such thing as Christianity.  

Does this portrait of Jesus make sense?

The story is told of the German philosopher Hegel that he was propounding his philosophy of history with reference to a particular series of events.  One of his hearers, a student of history, interrupted him and saying, ‘But Herr Professor, the facts are otherwise.’  ‘So much the worse for the facts,’ replied Hegel.  One is tempted to make the same observation of this programme.  

The programme presented the view that the New Testament is an unreliable source of information about the life of Jesus. While I do not accept that view, I will not begin by defending the New Testament, but by taking a critical look at the line taken by the programme itself.

  • Jesus and his followers were not only poor, but also illiterate.  Yet at the same time they were pious Jews, according to the information presented by the programme.  Following the principles of Deuteronomy 6.6-7, ‘These words which I command you this day shall be in your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children’, pious Jews would be unlikely to be illiterate.   There is evidence of a school system in operation amongst the Jews in the first century BC.  Apocryphal gospels contain stories of Jesus as a schoolboy.  The great value placed on learning in Jewish life is shown in Baba Metzia 11.11, ‘Parents bring children into the world, whereas teachers bring them to the life of the world to come.’  Such a flawed statement at the beginning of the programme did not impress me with its historical accuracy.  
  • Jesus’ crucified body would have been left on the cross and not buried.’   Yet according to the programme, Jesus’ followers believed he would rise from the dead and rekindle the rebellion against Rome.   Such a belief could easily be discredited by the Romans who would have the most to fear from it.  All they would have to do would be to point to the corpse of Jesus and scotch the rumour.  Furthermore we are asked to believe that the Jerusalem church persisted in this vain belief for almost 30 years despite nothing happening.  In fact there could be no possible motivation for such a belief persisting.  It would quickly have died out and Jesus would have been forgotten as other leaders of rebellions were (see Acts 5.35-39).    

 There is a parallel to this to the modern Jewish Lubavitch movement, some of whom believed the late Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, was the Messiah.  After he died the belief in Schneerson’s Messiahship persisted in a handful of his supporters who still believe that he will rise from the dead.  However this belief in Schneerson’s resurrection is held in ridicule by most supporters of the Lubavitch movement and all non Lubavitch Jews.  As the Rebbe continues to fail to rise from the dead, so belief in this becomes increasingly difficult to hold.  Inevitably it will cease altogether before long.

The programme implied that James’ movement was a serious one, which attracted support throughout the Jewish community as late as AD 58.  We are asked to believe that they considered Jesus to be merely a human figure, the leader of a failed revolt who had been crucified but would rise again from the dead to rekindle the revolt.  Despite the fact that such a resurrection never took place, they managed to maintain this belief for about 30 years. Psycho-logically this is utterly implausible.  

  • The dispute between Paul and James.  According to the programme there was a fundamental difference between James and Paul about who Jesus was. James believed Jesus to be a human figure born in the normal way, who led a political movement with Messianic pretensions against Rome.  Paul believed Jesus to be the Son of God, born in a supernatural way, who died and rose again as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Despite the fact that they believed totally different things about Jesus, the issue which caused the split between them was not a fundamental one, but a relatively minor one, concerning circumcision and dietary laws.  We are asked to believe that despite the fact that James totally disagreed with what Paul was preaching about Jesus, he made an agreement that Paul should preach to the Gentiles, provided he taught Jews to keep the laws of the Torah.  If the nature of the disagreement between them was a fundamental one over the nature of who Jesus was, surely there would not have been any grounds for the two coming to an agreement at all, even if only temporarily.    It is like saying that Hyam Maccoby would come to an agreement with me about presenting Jesus to the Jewish community, even though we believe totally different things about him, providing I agree to Jewish converts to my beliefs about Jesus continuing to eat kosher.
  • External sources to the New Testament.  The implications of the programme are that Paul invented an untrue story about Jesus through his followers after the split with James in AD 58.  Despite the fact that Christianity was itself a persecuted movement, opposed by both Jews and Romans, we are asked to believe that Paul’s faction of the church managed to suppress all traces of the James’ faction and utterly remove it from public view without any contrary record being preserved.  If, as the programme implies the New Testament is a false account of what took place, it was written at a time when the events were well known, and yet no one contradicted this.

One source external to the New Testament is Josephus who was commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in AD 66 and was captured by the Romans and became attached to their headquarters. In his history, Antiquities XX 9.1, he describes how Ananus the High Priest ‘assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others and having accused them as law breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.’   The accusation against James is one of breaking the Torah, not sedition against Rome.  If the facts had been as presented in the programme surely Josephus would have had some inkling of this and written something of James’ beliefs and the way Paul had altered the message of Jesus.  And yet there is nothing about this in his writings.   

 Josephus also has a hotly disputed section in his Antiquities (18.33) which says, ‘Now there was about this time Jesus a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.  He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had him condemned to the cross, those who loved him at first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.  And the tribe of the Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.’   While there may be grounds for questioning the authenticity of Josephus writing that Jesus was the Christ, roughly the same material also appears in an Arabic version, giving grounds for using this portion as a non-Christian testimony to the events recorded in the Gospels and Acts.  For a detailed investigation of references to Jesus in the writings of Josephus see ‘Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament’ by F.F. Bruce.

The Talmud is hardly a sympathetic commentary on the life of Jesus, and yet it too knows nothing of the portrait of Jesus presented by ‘The Real Jesus’ programme.  In Babylonia Sanhedrin 43a we read, ‘On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going to be stoned in that he has practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel.’  The accusation that Jesus practised sorcery is close to Matthew 12.24: ‘This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons.’  If the truth was as presented in the programme one would expect a hostile source like the Talmud to pick up on this and use it in its critique of Christianity.

There are hostile references to the beliefs of Christians in the writings of Roman historians, Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, (‘Evidence that demands a verdict’ by Josh McDowell p81-83) all of which however confirm the nature of Christian belief recorded in the New Testament.  One has to ask why Jewish and Roman writings opposed to the spread of Christianity and close in time and location to the events did not use the arguments of ‘The Real Jesus’ programme.  If events were as they were presented in this programme, surely someone would have known about it and blown the story, exposing Paul and his followers as frauds.  As a persecuted minority movement the early Christians were in no position to suppress all hostile or contradictory material to their cause.  Yet no dispute about the Christian faith in the early church period has any record of the scenario presented by this programme.  Should we really believe that academics in British and American universities nearly 2000 years later, know more about what happened than both sympathetic and hostile eyewitnesses?  

What about the New Testament record?

The academics behind ‘The Real Jesus’ may like to discount evidence from the New Testament, but at least it is there, which is more than can be said for evidence for the version they are putting forward.   It is beyond the scope of this article to give a detailed defence of the historicity of the New Testament, but I would refer readers to the book by F.F. Bruce, ‘The New Testament Documents – Are they reliable?’  He gives good reasons to believe in the early dating of the Gospels and Acts, their apostolic inspiration and historical accuracy.

With reference to Acts, the crucial book in this debate, F.F. Bruce testifies to the accuracy of its historical details.  The place names, the geography, the titles of the various public figures are all remarkable in their accuracy and could only have been produced by someone who genuinely was an eye witness of the events, or who had access to those who were.  Sir William Ramsay, regarded as one of the greatest archaeologists ever, wrote of Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, ‘Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.  Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.’    

Was there a split between Paul and James?

 We do find that there was a difference of opinion between Paul on one hand and James and Peter on the other.  (Peter became a relatively minor figure in the programme, despite being recognised by all strands of Christianity, including Gnostic heresies, as a leader of the early church).  The fact that this difference is written about at all gives the lie to the accusation of the programme that the New Testament is just Pauline propaganda.  It would not be difficult to write the dispute out of the text.  As it is, the inclusion of this is a testimony to the honesty of the writers who are willing to show that the people involved were human and had their differences.  Any new movement would be expected to come up against unforeseen situations, which would need thinking through as to how to deal with them.   A possible reconstruction of what happened is as follows.

James, the brother of Jesus, was not one of the twelve disciples and did not accept Jesus’ claim to be Messiah before the resurrection (John 7.3-5, Mark 3.20, 1 Corinthians 15.7).  He then became a member of the Jerusalem church (which according to Acts 2-5 preached exactly the same message about Jesus as Paul did).  Because of his piety he became a pillar of the church and was one of the elders left in charge by Peter as he began to travel outside Jerusalem.  Within the Jerusalem church there were a variety of influences, including those who were strict Pharisees and Hellenists and Galileans.  They all believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but coming from different backgrounds, had different views regarding Torah observance.  The Pharisees maintained their strict adherence to Torah regulations on such issues as circumcision, Sabbath observance and kosher food regulations.   Some of them tried to make less observant Jews follow their example.

As the message of the Gospel began to spread to Gentiles the question of whether non-Jews had to be converted also to Judaism became an issue.  As ‘The Real Jesus’ programme correctly observed, accepting Jesus as Saviour was one thing, but having the knife applied in circumcision was not exactly an attraction to Gentiles!  Peter is in fact the first one to confront the question of whether it is right to take the message to the Gentiles in the discussion recorded in Acts 11. Here the ‘circumcision party’ in Jerusalem protest at Peter going in to eat with the Gentile Cornelius and his household. Peter explains how God confirmed his witness to the Gentiles by sending the gift of the Holy Spirit to them and those questioning him are satisfied with this.

Following Paul’s conversion he began to preach the Gospel as commissioned by Jesus.  He conferred with the Jerusalem church, meeting Peter and James three years after his conversion (Galatians 1.18-19) and again going up to Jerusalem 14 years later after he had begun his mission to the Gentiles (Galatians 2.1).  On the latter occasion it would seem that the circumcision party were still active and tried to have Titus, a Greek convert who was travelling with Paul, circumcised. On this occasion Paul recognised James, Cephas (Peter) and John as ‘pillars of the church’ and they endorsed his ministry (Galatians 2.9) and took his side against the circumcision party.  By this time the issue was becoming clearer:  the requirement for entrance into the Christian community was repentance and faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah alone and baptism in his name.  Gentile converts were not required to become Jews first in order to become followers of Jesus.

The next question to be faced was:  ‘How should Jewish and Gentile Christians relate to each other?  Should they have separate fellowships?  Is one superior to the other?’  This is the issue in Galatians 2.11-12, which takes place in Antioch after Paul has visited Jerusalem.  This time Peter is doing the visiting.  He has come to meet with Paul’s predominantly Gentile congregation in Antioch.  He is faced with a question of whether to eat with the Gentiles and demonstrate the principle that Jew and Greek are all one in Messiah Jesus, or whether to give offence to the law observant Jewish believers from Jerusalem who have come down to check out the situation themselves.  This latter group was close to James.   

Peter, who has not really had to face this situation yet in his ministry and has not worked out how to handle it, makes the wrong decision.  Paul on the other hand has faced this situation daily, and has come to understand that the priority concern – getting the Gospel across to the Gentiles – has to take precedence over the secondary concern, not offending religious Jews.  This passage, and the further development of it in Acts 15, reveals that there are differences in the strictness of observance amongst Jews anyway (so too today – see the relationship between Reform and Orthodox Jews).   So Paul rebukes Peter and demonstrates that a principle of the Gospel is at stake.

Galatians was probably written around AD 48 and the next significant event to take place in this ongoing question was the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15), probably the following year. This was to give an apostolic ruling on the question of whether Gentile converts to Christianity should be circumcised and made to keep the Torah.  By this time Peter had worked out the issue and came to perfect agreement with Paul on the matter of observance of the Law:

‘Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way as they also were.’  Acts 15.7-11.

James endorses this (13-21) and a letter is sent from the Jerusalem church to the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia setting out the decision of the Apostles on the matter and affirming the ministry of Barnabas and Paul.  It also refutes the teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised and must keep the law and says that those who teach this have no authority to do so from the Jerusalem church (23-29).  Presumably the producers of ‘The Real Jesus’ programme would dismiss this crucial passage in Acts as ‘Pauline propaganda’ yet it reads with much more of the ring of truth about it than anything they managed to present.

Despite the record of some disagreement and debate between Peter and Paul there is no difference in their teaching concerning the basics of the Gospel as recorded in the New Testament.  In fact Peter writes of ‘our beloved brother Paul’ who according to the wisdom given to him has written to you, as also in all epistles, speaking in them of these things.’  (2 Peter 3.15-16)

The programme’s version of the next event in the development of this issue, when Paul visited James in Acts 21, required the text to be re-written to say the opposite of what it does say.  According to the programme James refused the collection Paul had made from the churches in Asia.  Yet the text says, ‘And when we had come to Jerusalem the brethren received us gladly.  On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. When he had greeted them, he told in detail the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.  And when they heard it they glorified the Lord.’  (Acts 21.17-20).  The academics behind this programme may claim that this is not the true account of what happened, and the opposite took place, but what evidence do they have for this?  On this basis one could read any ancient text and re-write it to make it fit in with one’s own pre-suppositions.

It is true that there follows an accusation made against Paul that he taught Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs(Acts 21.21).  We do not have a record of how Paul answered this accusation, because in his defence of his position in the Temple the following day he is cut short by the riot which follows his statement ‘I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’  However he does testify before Jews and Gentiles that he has ‘lived in all good conscience before God until this day.’  (Acts 23.1).  In Romans 14 Paul gives his definitive teaching on law observance, which ties in with what we know of the development of early Christianity:  that the believer is free to observe or not observe feast days and food regulations, and that these things do not affect eternal salvation, which comes only through faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

There is no hint that James sided with Paul’s accusers after the Temple riot, as was claimed by the programme.  Acts gives no further mention of James, but Josephus does.  As has been already quoted, Josephus records that James was ordered to be executed by the same high priest before whom Paul stood in Acts 23 some two years later on the accusation of being a law breaker.   According to Josephus then it is the Temple authorities who have James put to death for violating Jewish law, not the Romans for sedition.  That hardly suggests that James and Paul were in opposing camps.

Interestingly the question of whether Jewish believers in Jesus should keep Torah laws in matters of circumcision, kosher food regulations and Sabbath observance is still a lively issue of debate in Messianic Jewish circles today, which again authenticates the record we have in Acts.  These are the struggles, which real people went through and continue to go through in trying to apply their new faith to real life situations.  

What did Paul know about Jesus?

According to Hyam Maccoby Paul knew nothing about the real earthly Jesus and received all his information from his communications with a ‘heavenly Jesus.’  Paul may not have known Jesus in the flesh but that would certainly not prevent him from finding out about him from those who did.  The accusation that Paul invented a different Jesus from the real one and is himself the true founder of Christianity is in no way supported by the New Testament.  The fact that Paul does not write in detail about the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels in his epistles is not significant.  He was writing letters to Christians whom he assumed to be familiar with the Gospel story telling them how to apply their faith to life situations. Neither do the epistles of Peter, James, John and Jude contain references to events in the Gospels other than the death and resurrection of Jesus, apart from 2 Peter 1.18 which refers to the Transfiguration.  

All that Paul does write about Jesus is in harmony with the Gospels.  He knew that he was divinely pre-existent and yet also a real human being descended from Abraham and David; that he lived under Jewish law, was betrayed after eating the Passover with his disciples, endured the Roman penalty of crucifixion, was buried and rose again from the dead.   He knew the disciples and was familiar with details of their lives, including the fact that Peter was married (1 Corinthians 9.5, Mark 1.30).  His teaching is in harmony with the teaching of Jesus on all ethical matters.  Both Jesus and Paul lay great emphasis on personal integrity and speaking the truth.  In Ephesians Paul writes,  We should no longer be children tossed to and from and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into him who is the head – Christ (Ephesians 4.14-15).  

However according to the programme Paul himself was practicing trickery and deception, by inventing a false story and knowingly deceiving others with it.  Paul’s own testimony is that his reward for spreading his message was not to be showered with honour and money, but beatings, perils, weariness, hunger and toil (2 Corinthians 11.23-33).  Is it really likely that he would go through all this for a story, which he knew, was not true?  He faced his coming execution with the confidence that I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Finally there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous judge will give to me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing  (2 Timothy 4.7-8).  Could he have done this if he knew that his life had been wasted spreading a lie?

What about the Ebionites?

The programme implied that following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, the Jerusalem church which had followed the line of James (as they presented it) developed into the Ebionite movement.  The question ‘Who were the Ebionites?’ and ‘Who were the Nazarenes?’ is a very interesting one which it is beyond the scope of this article to deal with in depth. For information of this subject I would refer the reader to ‘Nazarene Jewish Christianity’ by Ray Pritz and material available on the Internet at http://www.Christian-thinktank.com .

Briefly this shows that the Ebionites were a heretical group who were latecomers to the scene, arising in the mid-to-late second century.  Irenaeus was the first to mention them by name as a group in AD 190 in ‘Against Heresies 1.26.1-22’. They appear similar to Gnostic groups, believing that the Christ spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and departed from him at his suffering.  They rejected all of the New Testament, except the Gospel of Matthew.  They repudiated Paul.  They practiced circumcision and the Law.  They had a fascination with the city of Jerusalem, even though they had never lived there.  Hippolytus in his ‘Refutation of All Heresies 7.22’ written in AD 230 gives further links to the Gnostics:  ‘And the Ebionites allege that they themselves also, when in like manner they fulfil the law are able to become Christs;  for they assert that our Lord Himself was a man in a like sense with the rest of the human family.’   This idea of Christ / Messiah (i.e. disciples of the group becoming ‘Christs’ themselves) is a distinctly non-Jewish one as well as being anti-Christian.  This adds to the conclusion that they were not spiritual descendants of the Jerusalem church, but were a mish mash of Gnosticism and pseudo Judaism.  What is important for the question we are looking at here is that although the Ebionites had a wide variety of views which were at variance with main line Christianity, none of them held the view that Jesus was a revolutionary fighter against Rome, the view which would have linked them to the Jerusalem church as presented by ‘The Real Jesus’ programme.

On the other hand the Nazarenes were first century Jewish Christians who almost certainly were connected to the Jerusalem church as presented in the New Testament.  They were in all major points believers in Jesus as recorded in the New Testament.  Pritz says, ‘The history of the Nazarenes must be clearly distinguished from that of the Ebionites… They were distinct from the Ebionites and prior to them. .. They were to be found in Galilee and probably in Jerusalem until 135 when all Jews were expelled from the city… They accepted the virgin birth and affirmed the deity of Jesus… They did not reject the apostleship of Paul.  They recognised his commission from God to preach to the Gentiles.’   He also traces the writings of early Christians to show that the Nazarenes called Jesus Lord, not just Messiah, believed the Holy Spirit to be a person, believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and believed Jesus to be sinless in contrast to the Hebrew Prophets.   

Moreover they were themselves the object of rejection by the synagogue in the period after the destruction of the Temple.   Towards the end of the first century Rabbi Gamaliel and his associates introduced a change in the twelfth benediction of the ‘Shemonesh Esreh’ (The 18 Benedictions of the Daily Prayer).  This is in effect a curse on Jewish believers in Jesus and resulted in the break between the synagogue and the remnant of the Jerusalem church:  ‘And for the apostates let there be no hope; and may the insolent kingdom be quickly uprooted in our days.  And may the Nazarenes and heretics (minim) perish quickly;  and may they be erased from the Book of Life;  and may they not be inscribed with the righteous.’  

What about the Gospel record?

The programme attacked traditional Christian belief and the Gospel records at several points.  Hyam Maccoby ridiculed the birth stories of Matthew and Luke, claiming that no census had ever taken place.  In ‘Evidence that demands a verdict’ Josh McDowell writes:  

‘It was at one time conceded that Luke had entirely missed the boat in the events he portrayed as surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Critics argued that there was no census, that Quirinius was not the governor of Syria at that time and that everyone did not have to return to his ancestral home.  First of all archaeological discoveries show that the Romans had a regular enrolment of taxpayers and also held censuses every 14 years.  This procedure was indeed begun under Augustus.  Second we find evidence that Quirinius was governor of Syria around 7BC. This assumption is based on an inscription in Antioch ascribing to Quirinius this post.  As a result of this finding it is now supposed that he was governor twice – once in 7BC and the other time in 6AD (the date ascribed by Josephus).  

In regard to the practices of enrolment, a papyrus found in Egypt gives directions for the conduct of a census. It reads; ‘Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of enrolment and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them.’

According to ‘The Real Jesus’ programme the death of Jesus had no redemptive significance, but was simply another sacrifice to the brutality of Rome and the failure of a political revolution to free the people.  Mr Maccoby put forward the view that the New Testament white washes the Romans and does not give an accurate portrait of life in occupied Judea. In particular he claimed that it presents Pilate as a merciful man who wanted to release Jesus.  It is true that there is not much about the Romans in the Gospels, but the Gospels do not set out to give a comprehensive picture of life in Israel at the time.  There is enough to show that life was harsh and the people were suffering.  Luke 13.1 speaks about ‘those Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.’   Pilate was willing to have Jesus chastised even though he could find nothing in him worthy of death (Luke 23.14-16).  The Roman scourging was in itself often enough to kill a man.   

As to Pilate’s actions in the Gospel narrative, there are sound psychological reasons why he might have been reluctant to have Jesus crucified.  The Romans were highly superstitious and afraid of omens and the supernatural (remember Julius Caesar and the ‘ides of March’).  According to John’s Gospel Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead which was creating a stir amongst the people (John 11-12).  The text implies that this would be known by the Romans and cause them to take action against Jesus and the whole of the Jewish people.  It is not unreasonable to imagine that Pilate would be afraid of a miracle worker who raised the dead.  In addition Matthew records the dream which his wife had warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus (Matthew 27.19).   God can speak through dreams to pagan rulers, who may also be brutal tyrants, in order to further his purposes as He did to Pharaoh (Genesis 41) and Nebuchadnezzar  (Daniel 2).  

Pilate’s unease at what was going on would be a reason for him to go against the usual practice for treating the bodies of crucifixion victims and grant Joseph of Arimathea’s request for the body of Jesus to be buried.  This detail of the Gospel account was ridiculed by the programme, and yet it is a vital part of the narrative.  It also fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 53 which says that the Suffering Servant Messiah would be ‘with the rich in his death.’  The intervention of this wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, who was also a follower of Jesus, was necessary for the resurrection to be verified by God removing the stone from Jesus’ tomb.

While we do not have any record from Roman sources concerning the trial and execution of Jesus under Pontius Pilate, there is evidence from early Christian writers that such a report was filed in the imperial archives.  Justin Martyr wrote his ‘Defence of Christianity’ about 150 AD and addressed it to the Emperor Antoninus Pius.  Quoting from Psalm 22.16, he says, ‘But the words, ‘They pierced my hands and feet’, refer to the nails which were fixed in Jesus’ hands and feet on the cross; and after he was crucified, his executioners cast lots for his garments and divided them among themselves.  That these things happened you may learn from the ‘Acts’ which were recorded under Pontius Pilate.’  By the ‘Acts’ he means the official records (Latin ‘acta’), which he was sure could be verified by the Emperor.  

Mr Maccoby presents a picture of Jesus as a leader of a Jewish rebellion against the Romans which he and his followers imagined had Messianic significance.  He treats as an invention the New Testament, which portrays Jesus as the Messiah fulfilling specific prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures and having a universal message for all humanity.  A Messianic mission to free Judea from Roman rule would have a limited relevance to one people living at one time in history.  Yet the scriptures indicate that the Messiah will have a task to bring God’s message to all the nations of the earth (Genesis 22.18, Psalm 72.11, Isaiah 49.6, Matthew 28.19) and that his kingdom will be an eternal one (Isaiah 9.7, Daniel 7.13-14).

In order to do this he would be born of the seed of a woman (Genesis 3.15 / Galatians 4.4) who is a virgin (Isaiah 7.14 / Matthew 1.18-25), also be Son of God (Psalm 2.7 / Matthew 3.17), a descendant of Abraham (Genesis 22.18 / Matthew 1.1) of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49.10 / Luke 3.33) and the house of David (Jeremiah 23.5 / Luke 3.31) born in Bethlehem but also from the days of eternity (i.e. pre-existent) (Micah 5.1 / Matthew 2.1).  He would have a ministry of miracles (Isaiah 61.1 / Matthew 9.35) and teach in parables (Psalm 78.2 / Matthew 13.34) and be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 60.3 / Acts 13.47-48).   He would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9.9 / Luke 19.35-37), be betrayed by a friend (Psalm 41.9 / Matthew 26.49-50), sold for 30 pieces of silver (Zechariah 11.12 / Matthew 26.15) and forsaken by his disciples (Zechariah 13.7 / Mark 14.50).  He would be accused by false witnesses (Psalm 35.11 / Matthew 26.59-60), be dumb before his accusers (Isaiah 53.7 / Matthew 27.12), be wounded and bruised (Isaiah 53.5 / Matthew 27.26), smitten and spat upon (Isaiah 50.6 / Matthew 26.67), mocked (Psalm 22.7-8 / Matthew 27.31), have his hands and feet pierced (Psalm 22.16, Zechariah 12.10 / Luke 23.33) as he was put to death with thieves (Isaiah 53.12 / Matthew 27.38).  He would make intercession for his persecutors (Isaiah 53.12 / Luke 23.34), be hated without a cause (Psalm 69.4 / John 15.25).  His bones would not be broken (Psalm 34.20 / John 19.33) and he would be buried in a rich man’s tomb (Isaiah 53.9 / Matthew 27.57-60).  He would rise from the dead (Psalm 16.8-11 / Luke 24.6).

The prophecies of the Suffering Servant, particularly Isaiah 53, harmonise with the portrait of Jesus given in the New Testament.   Since these were written centuries before Paul was born it can hardly be claimed that he invented these prophecies also.  They give meaning to the Servant’s death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world:  ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. … For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people was he stricken’  (Isaiah 53.6, 8).  This is precisely the meaning given in the Gospels and the writings of Paul for the death of Jesus.   The modern Rabbinic interpretation, first put forward by Rashi in about 1050 AD, is that this passage refers to the sufferings of Israel on behalf of the nations.  However this does not make sense of the text.  For one thing it makes Isaiah a Gentile!  (For the transgression of my people (i.e. the Gentiles) was he (Israel) stricken).

That Messiah would rise from the dead is also implied in Isaiah 53.10-11:  ‘He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.  He shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied, by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities.’    Again this passage points precisely to the purpose of the death and resurrection of Jesus as taught in the New Testament – to justify (make people right with God) through bearing their sins.  The fact that it will be worthwhile is shown by the verse which says that he will see the travail of his soul.  As a result of his sufferings a multitude of people would find peace with God through faith in him.    

First century believers and believers today find meaning and reality in this view of the resurrection, which, unlike the view proposed by the programme, does not lead to disappointment and disillusion.  I can testify to this myself.  30 years ago after a drunken New Years Eve party, I sat in a room in Hampstead, London and asked God to forgive my sins through the sacrifice Jesus the Messiah made for me nearly 2000 years ago.  I discovered the reality of the risen Lord Jesus which transformed my life and has continued to do so ever since.


Ultimately the question of the truth or otherwise of the Christian message is one which can only be determined by the experience of the believer.  Millions of people worldwide have had the experience Paul had (generally less dramatically!) and they continue to do so.  This leads to faith that Jesus is risen from the dead and is alive today.  As a result he is able to give us a new life in which the Holy Spirit is able to renew us and enable us to live according to the values of the kingdom of God.   

At the same time this faith is not just a leap in the dark.  The historical facts support the message of the Gospel recorded in the New Testament.  Programmes like ‘The Real Jesus’ may challenge it but they cannot destroy it.  Unfortunately believing Christians (as opposed to clerical ‘religious experts’) are rarely given the opportunity to defend their faith from these kind of attacks.  That is one reason why I felt compelled to write this article.  It would be good if Channel 4 would permit a response to this programme which could lead to an intelligent debate on these issues which are of vital significance to all people.

I have sympathy for those like Hyam Maccoby who feel the immense pain of the Jewish people who so often have been on the receiving end of a brutal distortion of Jesus’ teaching (and Paul’s) which has often masqueraded as Christianity and then performed anti-Christian acts against Jews and others in Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms and even in some way preparing for the Holocaust.  Yet true Christians were also on the receiving end of persecution at all of these times.  The answer is not to re-write the Christian Gospels according to the speculations of academics living nearly 2000 years later. It is to apply them correctly and thus to express God’s love and justice, revealed most perfectly in Messiah Jesus’ death and resurrection as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.