Since the late 18th century, scholarship on the study of Jesus has moved from faith-based research to a cultural investigation focused on historical probability.
Known popularly as the “quest for the historical Jesus,” the academic enterprise uses literary data, archaeology and modern historical method to reconstruct the life of Jesus.
Michael Daise explains that history-based inquiry into Jesus’s life began in Germany when the Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the time,” embraced philosophical rationalism. Daise is William & Mary’s Walter G. Mason Associate Professor of Religious Studies. He has included a student, Bethany Rishell ’11, in his investigation of this fascinating field that mixes history, religious studies, archaeology and ancient and modern languages. They critically analyze first-century Judaic literature and other sources in hopes of building a composite picture of Jesus.
Despite the empirical nature of the research, scholars studying the historic Jesus start with the Bible. Their primary sources are the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, says Daise, which describe the life, ministry and death of Jesus. Historical and cultural context are also taken into consideration to figure out the events of Jesus’s life.
Non-canonical sources—texts not contained in the Bible—are also studied to cross-reference data and establish historical fact, said Daise. Such texts include the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writings from the era not included in the canon; the Old Testament Apocrypha, a body of early Jewish and Christian texts, most of which are included in the Roman Catholic canon; and Antiquities of the Jews, a 20-volume book composed by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
Scholars agree that Jesus was a Jew, says Daise, and therefore they expect continuities between the person of Jesus and other aspects of the age.
“To study Jesus, you don’t need to study material that mentions his name or even includes him as a character,” said Daise. “You can simply study anything about Judaism of the time and that will help you reconstruct his milieu. Then, you can look back at the canonical Gospels with a better lens.”
Daise has devoted his career to studying Judaism and the formative years of Christianity. He is part of the Enoch Seminar, which began in 2001. It’s a group of scholars from 15 countries who gather, by invitation only, to share research on Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins. He brings this background into his classes at William & Mary, such as his Christian Origins course where he met Rishell.
Raised in what she described as a religious, conservative family, Rishell says she developed a very personal interest in discovering who Jesus really was.
“When I came to William & Mary, I really wanted the opportunity to study Jesus from a secular perspective,” said Rishell. So she started working on research, under Daise’s direction, during her freshman year.
“I had to do some ‘grunt work’ as Professor Daise called it,” she said. She began by updating a database and assisting Daise with a bibliography. The majority of her time, however, was focused on her own research.
Under Daise’s mentorship, Rishell started to focus on ancient Judaism and the afterlife. She read original texts and wrote down every reference to the afterlife, such as “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Son of Man Coming,” found in the Christian Gospels, the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and Old Testament Apocrypha. She compiled a line-by-line analysis and comprehensive lists of verses that refer to the afterlife.
Rishell immersed herself in even more research after learning she was a recipient of a Monroe Scholarship through the Roy R. Charles Center. Monroe Scholars—representing the top seven percent of the College’s student body—design their own unique research projects, receive a stipend for their work and are largely funded through private support.
After two intense years of research, Daise asked Rishell to participate in a second research assistantship. She immediately embraced the opportunity. “This time I was doing less ‘grunt work’ and more of my own research focusing on the concept of Jesus as the messiah,” said Rishell.
Last year, professor and student collaborated on a review of The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity. Their piece appeared in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where Daise serves as book review editor. The review is a critique of five essays on the subject of messianism from a series of lectures at Lund University.
When The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity came across Daise’s desk, he knew the topic coincided with Rishell’s research and his responsibility as book review editor. Like other professors within the humanities, Daise had worked with students on various research projects, but never at this level.
“Working with a student on a book review was a first, and completely new for me,” he said.
The 188-page book encapsulates five authors and their messianic arguments that have shaped Jewish and Christian belief in a messiah. Rishell took the initial lead and read each chapter, and then met with Daise to discuss the messianic images. Rishell drafted chapter-by-chapter summaries. The end product was written by Daise, incorporating Rishell’s insights.
Intro to messianism
“Overall, the book gives a nice historical introduction to the subject of messianism,” says Rishell. “I think the authors were strong on the scriptural acts of Jesus, which is really important because they are our most comprehensive source for understanding the life of Jesus.”
Separating the myths from the facts is critical when studying the historical Jesus, said Daise. Scholars must put their own subjective interpretations aside, he said, and seek the facts.
Messiah, a Hebrew word meaning “anointed,” has a Greek corollary in Christos, or Christ. There are several references to Jesus as the messiah in the canonical Gospels, says Daise. Jesus is called Christos and several places use Greek letters to spell out the Hebrew, he noted.
“We are attempting to distill the theology from the history in stories, excise the theology and then take the history and reconstruct Jesus,” said Daise, “to find out who Jesus really was, or how he would meet our perceptions of reality—rather than who he was theologically.”