Historians now say Jesus did not intend to start a new religion.
Historians now say Jesus did not intend to start a new religion.

For the past two centuries, theologians and historians have debated whether Jesus intended to transform Judaism into a new religion. Contemporary Bible historians believe that Jesus was a devout Jew and that the new religion that worshipped him was created by his followers years after his death.

Emergence of the "Historical Jesus"

Beginning in the 18th century, the Enlightenment’s spirit of rational inquiry began applying to the study of Jesus. A new concept developed: the “historical Jesus.” The figure worshipped by Christians became the “Jesus of faith” who bore only a coincidental resemblance to the actual person. The historical Jesus was not divine or the savior of all humankind. He was a preacher, a teacher or even a political revolutionary. Scholars have differed on the particulars. However, they have agreed on his Jewishness, and 20th-century historians have come to view early Christianity as a movement within Judaism, not a rejection of it.

Judaism in the Time of Jesus

Judaism in the early first century was varied among numerous small sects in Israel. The Essenes, believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls, interacted as little as possible with the rest of society, believing that spiritual and physical purity was the highest Jewish calling. The Zealots were political radicals who believed that overthrowing the Roman occupiers in Israel was the religious duty of all Jews. In the Bible, Jesus is sharply critical of the Pharisees, who emphasized strict interpretation of both the written and oral Torah. While Jesus probably did not intend to change Judaism, he did want to change the Pharisee sect.

The Early Days of Jewish Christianity

In the Bible, Jesus preaches only to Jews. After his death, some of his surviving followers built a new sect around the teachings of their departed leader. This new sect was fully Jewish. Members followed laws of the Torah and rituals of the Temple. After several years, the Jesus sect started accepting non-Jews. At first, these new members were required to accept Jewish law. However, an evangelist named Paul, who emerged shortly after Jesus’ lifetime, traveled throughout the Middle East recruiting new members to the Jesus movement. Though Jewish himself, Paul opposed the requirement that non-Jews strictly observe all Jewish laws. Under Paul, they were allowed to remain non-Jews while becoming devotees of Jesus.

What Did Jesus Actually Believe About Judaism?

Historians now say is that Jesus was likely an apocalyptic teacher. According to Helen K. Bond, author of “The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed,” Jesus adopted the teachings of his mentor, John the Baptist, a fiery apocalyptic prophet. When Jesus died, Bond says, some of his followers kept alive his belief in the coming end of the world and need for all Jews to repent. That was the start of the Jewish Jesus movement. But after the movement began assimilating non-Jews, the Jewishness of Jesus faded from memory and the Jesus of faith was born.