Jesus of Nazareth: A Person Like Us?

by Roger Lenaers (Author)
©2016 Monographs VIII, 112 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 779


Born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried, and rose again on the third day – this, the Church’s conception of Jesus, is based on mystical and mythological thinking.
But Jesus is not a citizen of another world, he is not an alien who dwelt amongst us for a short time. He is no omniscient and almighty miracle worker. And he is not an only-begotten Son of God.
The author looks at the gospels from a modern angle. Was Jesus a person like us? He investigates these issues conscientiously and opens up a new way in which the modern Christian, despite everything, can confidently be a believer.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Chapter One Less Forgotten Than Ever
  • Chapter Two From Pre-Modern to Modern or from Religion to Atheism
  • Chapter Three Born of a Woman
  • Chapter Four From His Baptism until His Death
  • Chapter Five Crucified under Pontius Pilate, Died and Was Buried
  • Chapter Six On the Third Day Arose from the Dead?
  • Chapter Seven Concluding Observations

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There was a time when Jesus of Nazareth was only thought about and written about uncritically, in keeping with church piety. Then came the Enlightenment and with it Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). He was an absolute innovator, the first for more than fifteen centuries who dared to undertake an historical-critical investigation of the content of the Gospels and, in so doing, to follow reason. His thoughts have proved to be for the most part fundamentally correct. In the 250 years since his work was published, much that was contained in his then new ideas has been accepted. But the concrete conclusions he drew from his interpretation of the Gospels were often wrong: for example, that he interpreted the Resurrection of Jesus as a scheme which his disciples organized so as to profit, as long as possible after his death, from the veneration the people had for Jesus. He knew that his interpretations of the life of Jesus would arouse vigorous criticism and antagonism. For this reason he did not publish the results of his studies himself, but gave them to some friends to read. Only after the death of Reimarus in 1768 did Lessing, one of the great thinkers of the German Enlightenment, decide to publish part of it, although in a tame form as “Fragments” from the work of an anonymous author.

The appearance of these so-called “Wolfenbüttel Fragments” 1774-1778 led, as was expected, to a flood of polemical writings and aggressive reactions, attacks on the person of the meanwhile deceased author, attempts, at all costs, to defend the supernatural in the Gospels, and rebuttals of these attempts. Clearly, Reimarus had touched a very sensitive nerve.

Anyone who wants to form an idea of the ensuing battles regarding the historical Jesus, with the resulting multiplicity of contradictory Jesus images, only needs to read the Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung which Albert Schweitzer published in 1906. His superb historical study leads inevitably to the conclusion that it is not possible to discover the genuine historical Jesus. The source material one would need to draw on is much too unreliable. First, each of Jesus’s disciples who spoke about him after his death had his own somewhat differently coloured memory of Him, and these differences were multiplied ←1 | 2→according to the psychology of the listeners who passed on the message they received. And, as well, the circumstances in which they lived had no small influence on the view they formed. Then the Aramaic traditions in their different forms were translated into Greek and recounted further. But obviously every translation is an interpretation and an adaptation. Finally, 40 years after the death of Jesus someone (today it is generally accepted that it was Mark), wrote – with the help of this diverse and sometimes contradictory material – a whole story which was to outline the activity of Jesus, together with his message. But this story was again the product of Mark’s own notions. Then Matthew and Luke built further on this foundation. On the basis of these many lenses between the historical reality and the written result – the Gospels – the white light of historical reality only comes to us refracted into many colours. What that white light really was like thus remains hidden. We see Jesus only through the many eyes of the devout community, and these many eyes did not at all see the same thing.

The Figure of Jesus in the Modern Historical-Critical Jesus Literature

Most of these historical-critical studies from the 19th and 20th centuries led to results in which very little was left of the picture of Jesus as it had been shaped by Western culture. Yet again scientific truth, now in the shape of historical reliability, seemed fundamentally to contradict traditional beliefs. In the 19th century there were even authors who maintained that the historical existence of that figure of Jesus which was always evading the historian’s grasp was a fairy tale or a myth. These authors also intended hereby to deny the Church all credibility, since it was seen as putting the brakes on modernity. Without an historical Jesus there would be no Church which could call on his authority.

One might have thought that interest in the person of Jesus of Nazareth would, in the meantime, have waned, for the critical ideas of unbelieving modernity penetrate the whole of society. Churches are emptying visibly, and Christian writings are certainly not bestsellers. However, new books about Jesus are continually appearing – a clear proof that despite everything there is still much interest in the person of Jesus, for a publisher ←2 | 3→will not promote any book for which he does not believe there will be sufficient sales at least to cover his costs.

Naturally the intention and focus vary with different authors. There are still those who, despite Albert Schweitzer, try to uncover the historical figure of Jesus: for example, with the help of historical analysis of the stormy period, full of uprisings, in which he lived. These authors were convinced that this age would have left its mark on Jesus so that in this way he becomes tangible. That led to the image of a failed socio-political Messias pretender. This is, for example, the way the American Muslim, Reza Aslan, sees him in his successful book The Zealot, to which we will return. Others try to work out, by means of very exact text analysis, what were the original words of Jesus himself and what – amongst the rest of the words ascribed to him – could have been the contribution of tradition. This is the focus of the authors who belong to the American Jesus Seminar. In this they have to move a long way from the field of the canonical Gospels, scour the apocryphal gospels, and also track down the Jesus-words handed down by the Fathers of the Church. Others examine the Jesus images which have come and gone since the Enlightenment and sometimes astound us: as, for example, the image of a Jesus who, during a childhood that is unknown to us, would have become a pupil of wise men in India or in Egypt, or who, after his only apparent death on the cross and recovery, withdrew to the Orient. Again others, like Josef Ratzinger, attempt, with consummate scholarship and profound spirituality, to make traditional dogmatic ideas acceptable.

Most of those modern authors are no longer what the Church deems to be believers; some are explicitly non-believers; but all are fascinated by that puzzling figure which emerges from the Gospels and, for us Christians, constitutes the kernel of our faith. We also call ourselves after him, at least by the second name Christ which we gave him ourselves and which obviously was not his family name. Christus is a Greek name of distinction, a glorifying name, which says what his followers saw in him and still see. It is the passive past participle of the Greek word that means “anointing”. This term “Anointed One” was used in ancient Israel most especially for the king. There kings were not crowned, but anointed. The anointing of young David to kingship by the prophet Samuel, as it is narrated in 1 Samuel 16 with great literary skill, is evidence of this.


VIII, 112
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 112pp.

Biographical notes

Roger Lenaers (Author)

Roger Lenaers, born in Ostend in 1925, is a Flemish theologian and classical scholar and a member of the Jesuit Order. For almost half a century he has been concerned with developments within the Christian faith.


Title: Jesus of Nazareth: A Person Like Us?
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