Although Jesus of Nazareth is the object of Christian devotion, he was not a Christian himself, but a pious Jew. What can be known about the historical figure of Jesus the Palestinian Jew? How would his teachings and actions have fit in the context of Judaism of his day, in the Greco-Roman world? What did he mean when he proclaimed the coming kingdom of God? Because almost all of our source material espouses Jesus as the Christ of Christian faith, the first step is to understand the aims and perspectives of these Christian sources, including the canonical Gospels as well as non-canonical Gospels.
Through careful examination of these sources in light of critical scholarship and the social and historical context of Judaism in the Greco-Roman world, we will consider how much the historian is able to reconstruct of Jesus using historical method, what the limits of this investigation are, and how relevant the task is. We will consider and evaluate a few of the different scholarly reconstructions of the historical Jesus. Major emphases will include the historical, social, religious, political, and cultural contexts of Jesus, including important precursors; the political, institutional, and cultural history of the teachings and actions of Jesus in their Jewish setting, and how these are reinterpreted by his followers after his death.
Attention will be paid to the development of variant Christian traditions about Jesus including Jesus as Messiah, his death as a saving event, the resurrection as exaltation of Jesus as Lord, the memorialization of Jesus in Christian ritual practice, and the cultural and religious impact of Jesus throughout history. In addition to the early Christian sources on Jesus (especially the canonical Gospels, but also other New Testament texts and non-canonical writings), on each topic students will read selections from early Jewish writings in order to illuminate the cultural context. These include the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, Jewish texts among the so-called Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, early rabbinic texts, and epigraphical writings. Relevant archeological evidence and Greco-Roman sources will also be considered. Broader issues of historical, cultural, linguistic, political and geographical context will be covered in lectures and secondary readings.