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The Real Jesus


According to a programme broadcast on Channel 4 before Christmas, entitled

'The Real Jesus', 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 50AD 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



In 58 AD 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



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 his 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 almost all

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 58AD. 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.

Psychologically 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 58AD. 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 (the?) 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



Galatians was probably written around 48AD 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



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).


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