A poster for the Churches Advertising Network once featured a picture of Jesus, who had been made to look like communist revolutionary Che Guevara. The caption read: ‘Meek and if’.

The point was cleverly made. First-century Israel was a hotbed of religious and political turmoil and Jesus certainly wasn’t afraid of upsetting the religious and political authorities by what he said and did. Yet the kingdom he preached ultimately transcended the political power struggles of his day. As he reminded Pilate at his own trial, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36).

Was Jesus a ‘failed messianic revolutionary’, as some claim?

Jesus certainly claimed to be the Messiah described in Old Testament prophecy, but whether he failed or not is up for debate. The fact we are still talking about him 2,000 years later suggests, at the very least, that
he was not a complete failure.

Jesus was certainly revolutionary, but not in the way Reza Aslan claims in Zealot (The Westbourne Press). He was not attempting political overthrow, but calling for a transformation of the heart of every person by peaceful means. In fact, there is a good deal of evidence that rather than being a zealot seeking political upheaval, Jesus actually directed his teaching against that tradition. ‘Simon the Zealot’ is named in the Gospels (Matthew 10:4; Luke 6:15) as a political revolutionary whose agenda was very different from Christ’s.

Jesus’ famous sayings about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile exemplify a message that focused on love and, in particular, love for our enemies. This was entirely at odds with the political agenda of the first-century zealots. Jesus’ focus on peace and love is not only supported by one or two proof texts, but arises from a broad portrait drawn from across the historical sources written by those closest to him.

Academic research into the ‘historical Jesus’ is notorious for its scepticism. It seeks multiple sources that will each offer a perspective, and only if these converge does the incident or attribute come to be regarded as ‘historical’. The peaceful Jesus passes this rigorous historical test, whereas Aslan’s claims about Christ contradict the historical records.

Is there a difference between the ‘Jesus of History’ and the ‘Christ of Faith’?

Some scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries tried to draw a distinction between the historical person who actually lived in the first century and the ‘Christ of Faith’. The latter was deemed to be an invention of religious devotion; someone who people imagined, began to worship and to whom miracles were attributed. This view is quite rare now for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, the Jesus of History versus Christ of Faith split is based on the idea that miracles cannot happen and that every miraculous incident must therefore have been made up by Christians and added to the Gospels. However, the date of the biblical manuscripts do not allow for this. The Gospels were written during the era of eyewitnesses and there was simply no time for such legendary accumulation to occur. Moreover, the idea that miracles cannot happen can and should be challenged today.

The other problem is the picking and choosing of the elements of historical record that are regarded as genuine and the bits that are 'faith-based' to fit the individual’s personal agenda. Aslan, for example, dismisses some New Testament passages as ‘fabulous concoctions’ but refers to others as ‘beyond dispute’, without any justification. 

Conveniently, the passages he accepts happen to fit his thesis and those he rejects do not. But if we take the Gospels as whole pieces of writing, with the honest acknowledgement from the manuscript tradition that what we have is eyewitness testimony, we discover that there is no dissonance between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.

Do you have to be a Bible scholar to really understand Jesus?

No, I believe that anyone can read the Gospels and discover Jesus for themselves. That is why from the earliest times the New Testament was translated and spread throughout the known world. Even today the global Church seeks to translate the Bible into every language and dialect on the face of the earth. The vision is for every person to have the opportunity to read the Bible in their own language.


The Gospels were originally written in Koine Greek, the everyday language of working people, and not the classical Greek of the philosophers and academics of the time. The earliest disciples were a mix of people. There were scholars like Paul, but there were also fishermen like Peter. Like them, we can come to know Jesus irrespective of who we are and the education we have received.

Having said that, it can be helpful to read the Gospels with the original historical context in mind if we want to grow in our understanding and faith. A good commentary will help. For example, a woman’s testimony was considered to be of less value than that of a man during the first century. The fact that the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are all primarily witnessed by women means that the stories are far less likely to have been made up. No conspirator would have dreamt of invoking a woman’s testimony to back up their story.

Ultimately, we know about Christ from the eyewitness accounts that have been preserved in the four Gospels for 2,000 years. But when we become his followers we meet him for ourselves through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not merely a historical figure; he is the resurrected Lord, alive today. We can know him personally as well as knowing about him. That is when we truly discover that the Jesus of History is the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, known and loved personally by millions of Christians through the ages.

Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.
Mikhail Gorbachev

No man can read the gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word.
Albert Einstein

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the
Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. 
CS Lewis