Biblical Studies Jesus and the Gospels

Contemporary Portrayals of Jesus: Part 1

What do you know about Jesus? Who was he? A good man? A prophet? Who is he to you? A controversial figure? A Saviour?

I’ve been fortunate enough to get my hands on a copy of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament by Andreas Kostenberger, Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles, curtesy of Chris at B&H Academic.

In Chapter 3, “Jesus and the Relationship Between the Gospels,” the authors discuss some Contemporary Challenges to the New Testament Portrayal of Jesus. If you read the newspaper, watch the news, or, God forbid, the tabloids, you’ve most likely seen an array of Jesus figures, many of which become part of our urban legends that we imagine when we (or the populace around us) think about Jesus.

But it’s not only public opinion, fancy novels, and conspiracy theorists that give a false shape to the picture of Jesus, but many New Testament scholars partake in fanciful imagery. Kostenberger (who I’ll refer to as the main author) and the gang give us eight examples of different pictures of Jesus, two of which actually follow what the New Testament says.

1. The Traveling Cynic Philosopher


F. G. Downing, B. Mack, and J. D. Crossan

The Proposed Jesus:

  • Preached and practiced a radical egalitarianism
    • His preaching abolished all social hierarchies and distinctions
  • The kingdom of God has no human broker
    • A relationship with God requires no human mediator
    • All have direct and equal access to God
  • Jesus’ death did not accomplish atonement for sin.
  • Jesus was tragically crucified because he threatened to destroy the temple,
    • the seat of Jewish hierarchical authority
  • Jesus’ agenda was not spiritual, but social
  • His parables and teachings taught more about human equality than about sin, judgment, forgiveness, or his own identity.


However, Crossan dismissed much of the material found in the canonical Gospels, which he viewed as subpar to noncanonical sources. However, “his favourite sources are either late revisions of material from the canonical Gospels, speculations about Jesus from second-century Christians, or even outright forgeries” (118).

2. The Charismatic Faith Healer


M. Borg and G. Vermes

The Proposed Jesus:

  • Had visionary-mystical experiences of God
  • Functioned as a channel of God’s power for others
    • This ‘god’ was more of an impersonal force than a personal deity
  • Jesus had ‘’too much compassion’’ for others to demand moral purity (118)

Kostenberger quotes Borg as saying,

“God does not refer to a supernatural being ‘out there.’… God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us. God is the non-material ground and source and presence in which… ‘we live and move and have our being.’”

Vermes depicted Jesus as

  • A Galilean holy man
  • He performed miracles
  • He operated outside the proper channels of normal religious authority
  • Jesus healed the sick and conquered the forces of evil in individuals


Vermes emphasized similarities between Jesus and Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle Drawer, two holy men described in the Talmuds. However, mistakenly emphasized the similarities and ignored important differences. Any and all supernatural activity from Jesus is denied.

3. The Apocalyptic Prophet


E. P. Sanders and M. Casy

Sander’s Proposed Jesus:

‘’…[A]n apocalyptic prophet who expected the climax of human history during his lifetime or shortly after his death’’ (119)

  • He prepared for God’s judgment by offering unconditional forgiveness not requiring repentance
  • Jesus’ miracles were simply cures of
    • psychosomatic illnesses
    • intentional deceptions
    • sometimes mysterious manipulations of natural causes
  • He did not experience any serious conflict with the Pharisees

Casey’s Proposed Jesus:

  • Believing the climax would occur within his lifetime, Jesus urged the lost sheep of Israel to prepare for the final judgment by repenting of their sins
  • He experienced serious conflict with the Pharisees who tried to impose strict purity regulations on Galilean Jews
  • He foresaw his own death which procured atonement for Israel, not as a messianic figure, but more like the Maccabean martyrs


Sanders and Casey rightly place Jesus within a first century context, but they minimize much of the Gospel’s data. They saw Jesus as being so similar to his Jewish contemporaries that they, like the proponents of the views we’ve seen so far, don’t adequately explain why Jesus was crucified.

4. The Social Reformer


G. Theissen, R. A. Horsley, R. D. Kaylor

The Proposed Jesus (and His Followers):

  • Renounced possessions and family ties
  • Embraced homelessness
  • Founded a peace party seeking to do away with violent revolts popular among Jewish movements
  • Encouraged non-retaliation
  • Was convinced the end was near
  • When the kingdom of Godwas established,
    • the poor would become wealthy
    • the weak, strong
    • the least, the greatest


These scholars overlook the spiritual dimension of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world. Jesus viewed himself as the Messiah, and was not concerned with a radical social or political change over.

Next Time

Not to overflow your brain-cup, I’ll end here. Next time we’ll look at the last four views and some concluding thoughts:

5. The Feminist Jesus
6. The Sage
7. A Marginal Jew
8. The Risen Messiah

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