The cover story, “Who Was Jesus?” of TIME magazine’s August 15, 1988 issue surveyed the views of gospel scholars—including scholars of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research—concerning the identity of Jesus.
The article presented a sad picture of the current state of scholarly knowledge. After 200 years of scientific investigation into New Testament records of the life of Jesus, scholars are more divided than ever as to who Jesus was and who he thought he was. Even sadder, the Herculean efforts of generations of scholars have brought Jesus no nearer to the ordinary believer.
Hopefully, TIME’s future updates will report less pessimism on the part of New Testament scholars about the possibility of discovering the Jesus of history. The Jerusalem School’s research is revealing a flesh-and-blood, historical Jesus who fits into the Jewish society of first-century Israel in every aspect. Its findings indicate that the first account of Jesus’ life was not a late story written by a Greek author, but an early Hebrew text (or, Hebrew oral tradition) perhaps written by Matthew, or another of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples.
The Greek texts of the synoptic Gospels are so Hebraic that many passages make no sense in their Greek form. By translating the Greek gospel passages to Hebrew, the Greek layers are peeled away, often revealing passages of perfect Hebrew word order and idiom. It is almost as if a copy of an ancient Hebrew scroll had been unearthed in an archaeological excavation.
Even back-translating gospel passages from Greek to Hebrew is not enough. The resulting Hebrew reconstruction must be related to the background of early Jewish teaching methods and the ways other sages of Jesus’ day interpreted Scripture. Despite the notion that Jesus’ sayings are easy to understand, many of them are so firmly rooted in first-century Jewish culture that today’s Christians find them unintelligible.
Rediscovering the Jesus of history and understanding his words in the context in which they were spoken is the task of scholars of the synoptic Gospels. The identification, within the synoptic Gospels, of the earliest versions of Jesus’ biography will provide better understanding of his sayings and make him more accessible to the person in the pew.