1088 Budapest, Rákóczi út 5.; Tel: (36 1) 381 23 47; E-mail: Ez az e-mail-cím a szpemrobotok elleni védelem alatt áll. Megtekintéséhez engedélyeznie kell a JavaScript használatát.
Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 22:31–37.


The Changing Faces of Jesus1


According to an oft-repeated saying, books on Jesus tell more about their authors than about Jesus himself. I would like to dissent or at least to claim that my case is an exception. If justification is needed, it may be found in my autobiography, Providential Accidents.2 In a nutshell, my interest in Jesus was not the product of my religious toing and froing. I was born in an assimilated and religiously detached Hungarian Jewish family. At the age of six together with my parents I was baptized Roman Catholic in the provincial town of Gyula by the local parish priest, Baron Vilmos Apor, the future bishop-martyr of Győr. I remained in that church as a student, a seminarian of the diocese of Nagyvárad, the member of the religious order of Notre Dame de Sion and for six years as a priest, until I reached the age of thirty-two years. Then followed a period of groping at the end of which by the end of the 1960s I found myself quietly, without a spiritual storm, back at my Jewish roots. But my fascination with the figure of Jesus was not the fruit of these wanderings. If personal experience had anything to do with my way of understanding Jesus, it can be located in an insider’s knowledge of both Christianity and Judaism.

During my student days at Louvain in Belgium I was never attracted to the New Testament. My teachers were too theological for my liking. My enthusiasm was first focused on the Hebrew Old Testament, and afterwards on the then newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls which have kept me busy throughout my whole academic life. My doctoral dissertation discussed the historical framework of Qumran and was published in French in 1953.3 A translation of the Scrolls into English followed in 19624. The original booklet of 250 pages has grown over the years into a volume of close to 700 pages5. The Scrolls led me to a study of ancient Jewish Bible interpretation, and there for the first time I had to pay serious attention to the treatment of the Old Testament in the New.6 From the mid-1960s I found myself involved in a twenty-year long collective labour aimed at revising, enlarging and rewriting a nineteenth-century modern classic, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ by Emil Schürer7. After completing the first of the three volumes of this gigantic monument, I decided to take a little time off, relax and enjoy myself by using the historical knowledge freshly gained for a new approach to the Gospel account of Jesus. To be more precise, I wanted to plunge the New Testament into the sea of the Judaism of its age in order to discover what the figure of Jesus might look like when perceived, not through the distorting lens of two thousand years of evolving Christian belief and theology, but through the eyes, ears and mentality of Jesus’ own Jewish contemporaries. Out of this endeavour emerged in 1973 “Jesus the Jew”,8 intended to describe what kind of person Jesus was. The book made an impact and was followed at ten yearly intervals by “Jesus and the World of Judaism”,9 sketching the message of the Gospels, and “The Religion of Jesus” the Jew,10 a full scale endeavour to portray Jesus as a religious man.

“The Changing Faces of Jesus” 11 has much in common with and often relies on the trilogy which preceded it, yet it also greatly differs from it. The approach is broader: instead of depending only on the first three Gospels which are considered closest to historical reality, it investigates also the Gospel of John, the letters of Paul and the rest of the New Testament. Moreover, it is addressed to a wider readership and in particular has a different scenario. In the trilogy the inquiry was essentially historical, here it is both literary and historical. The purpose of “The Changing Faces of Jesus” is to sketch four different portraits in the various levels of New Testament literature before trying to guess the fifth one lying beneath the earliest layer of Gospel tradition.

The arrangement of the portraits follows their degree of sophistication rather than a strictly chronological line. I begin with the Gospel of John, the Everest of New Testament Christology, a Gospel which happens to be not only the most advanced, but also the latest New Testament representation of Christ, dating to the opening years of the second century AD. John fundamentally departs from the earlier Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke in its religious outlook. Its story telling, too, has little in common with the Synoptic with the exception of the section leading to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. John’s Gospel largely ignores Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, and replaces the pithy proverbs and vivid, God-centred parables of the Jesus of the Synoptic with long, rambling speeches in which Jesus continuously reflects on himself. In the Fourth Gospel we encounter not a real, flesh and blood Galilean charismatic, but a Stranger from heaven, temporarily exiled on earth, who is longing to return to his celestial home. The 252 brilliantly chosen Greek words of the Prologue offer a pellucid abstract of John’s Gospel, the summit of New Testament theology. The eternal and divine Word of God, who took part in the creation of the world, in time became incarnate to reveal to men the face of the invisible God.

The Johannine portrait of Jesus foreshadows and epitomizes later Christianity, as we know it. The great doctrinal controversies of the church in the first millennium of its history mostly revolved around ideas first mooted in the Fourth Gospel . The orthodox doctrine relating to Christology – the one person and two natures of Jesus-Christ – and the Holy Trinity, all spring from the spiritual Gospel of John. John is the father of the theology of eastern Christianity.

Here ends my synopsis of the first two chapters of the Changing Faces, dealing with John. The next two are devoted to the high peaks of the teaching of St.Paul.

The letters of Paul chronologically precede John by half-a-century, but from the point of view of doctrinal development stand only a little below him. As is well known, Paul is held by many to be the true founder of the church and the chief inspiration of the atonement-redemption theology of Western Christianity. Closing his eyes to the earthly Jesus whom he never met, and about whom he had nothing original to report, Paul’s gaze was fixed on Christ, the universal Saviour of both Jews and of non-Jews. This superhuman, but not quiet divine Christ, reminiscent of the heroes of the mystery religions then so popular in the Graeco-Roman world, played the ultimate lead part in a cosmic drama of redemption. Adam, the first man, left death and sinfulness to posterity, but the last Adam (Jesus-Christ) brought to all forgiveness, life and salvation. Paul’s astonishing success in the non-Jewish world, contrasted with the failure of the early Christian mission among Jews, was itself part of his mystery play. The Second Coming of Jesus, fervently expected by Paul and the primitive church, could not happen – he thought – before the gospel had reached all the Gentile nations. He also imagined that its progress among the heathen would kindle the jealousy of the Jews who would not suffer passively the take-over of their spiritual patrimony by non-Jews. And once the Jews decided to enter the race, they would advance by leaps and bounds and soon catch up with, and overtake the leaders. Thus the whole of mankind, both Jews and Gentiles would enjoy the salvation mediated through Christ.

Paul believed that he himself was commissioned by God to preach Christ to all the nations on the Eastern and Northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, starting with Syria , Asia Minor, and Greece. He then planned to travel to Rome and convert Italy, and finally rush to Spain. No doubt, it was in Spain, at the westernmost extremity of the inhabited universe, that Paul expected to hear the trumpet signalling the day of Christ’s return, hailed by the mixed alleluia chorus of Gentiles and Jews.

As is often the case with beautiful dreams, they end before their climax is reached. Paul never arrived in Spain. Jews and Christians are still divided, and two millennia have passed without the Second Coming. But Christianity still endures, and this is largely due to the spiritual vision of Jesus sketched by the odd-man-out among the apostles who never saw him in the flesh.

This takes us in Chapter 5 of The Changing Faces, to the third portrait of Jesus, the one contained in the first half of the Acts of the Apostles: the Jesus seen and preached by Palestinian Jewish Christianity. It is far distant from John’s mystical vision of the divine Christ and from Paul’s mystery drama of salvation. The Jesus of the Acts is a Galilean charismatic character, elevated by God to the dignity of Lord and Messiah after raising him from the dead. Instead of considering Jesus as God or a temporary expatriate from heaven, according to a crowd in Jerusalem as “a man attested… by God with mighty works and wonders and signs”, that it is to say a Jewish prophet.

Stepping further back, at least as far as the nature of the tradition transmitted by them is concerned, we encounter in Chapter 6 the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. He is depicted as still living and moving along the dusty and rocky paths of rural Galilee and comes onstage as an itinerant healer, exorcist and preacher, admired by the simple folk, the sick and social outcasts – the sinners, the prostitutes and the tax-collectors – but case of scandal and annoyance to the petit bourgeois village scribes and synagogue presidents. His sympathizers venerated him as a miracle-working prophet and from an early stage, though apparently without his encouragement, his name began to be linked to that of the Messiah, son of David. His beneficial charismatic actions were seen as representing the portents of the messianic age in which the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the lepers are cleansed. He was not a revolutionary, and entertained no political ambition. The main subject of his proclamation was the imminent arrival of a new regime, and saw himself as the person entrusted by the Father, whom he loved and worshipped, to lead the Jews through the gate of repentance into the spiritual promised land. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”!

He fell foul of the high-priestly authorities in a politically unstable Jerusalem because he did the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong thing was the disturbance which Jesus caused by overturning the stalls and tables of the merchants of sacrificial animals and the money-changers who sold the correct silver coins prescribed for gifts to the Sanctuary. The wrong place was the Temple of Jerusalem where large crowds of locals and pilgrims foregathered and formed a potential hot bed for explosive revolutionary activity. And the days leading to Passover, the feast of Liberation and the expected date of the manifestation of the Messiah, was the worst possible time because at that very tense moment the nerves of the guardians of law and order reached breaking point. Hence the tragedy of Jesus. Seen as a potential threat to peace, he was arrested by the Jewish leaders, who, however, preferring not to take the responsibility for his death on themselves and handed him over to the secular power. So Jesus was executed on a Roman cross by the notoriously cruel governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

This portrait painted by the Synoptic of a charismatic, messianic, healer, exorcist and preacher of God’s Kingdom is what one might call the gospel truth about Jesus. But this picture needs to be immersed into the real world of first century Palestinian Judaism as it is known form the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the rest of post-biblical literature pre-rabbinic and rabbinic, in which we encounter other prophetic- charismatic characters, albeit of lesser stature than Christ, such as Honi, Hanina ben Dosa or Jesus, son of Ananias, with whom he can be compared. It is by looking through that prism that we may discover, concealed beneath the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke the shadowy face of the “real” Jesus. I will not give away all the secrets of Chapter 7 of the Changing Faces – the reader will have to turn to the book to discover them – but I will offer here my summation of the Jesus of history.

Here is the conclusion: The face of Jesus, truly human, wholly theocentric, passionately faith-inspired and under the imperative impulse of the here and now, impressed itself so deeply on the minds of his disciples that not even the shattering blow of the cross could arrest its continued real presence. It compelled them to carry on in his name their mission as healers, exorcists and preachers of the Kingdom of God. It was only a generation or two later, with the increasing delay of the Second Coming, that the image of the Jesus familiar from experience began to fade, covered over first by the theological and mystical dreaming of Paul and John, and afterwards by the dogmatic speculations of church-centred Gentile Christianity.

By the end of the first century Christianity had lost sight of the real Jesus and of the original meaning of his message. Paul, John and their churches replaced him by the Christ of faith. The swiftness of the obliteration was due to a premature change in cultural perspective. Within decades the message of the historical Jesus was transferred from its Aramaic-Hebrew linguist context, from its Galilean-Palestinian geographical setting, and its Jewish religious framework to the primarily Greek-speaking pagan Mediterranean world of classical cultural background. The change took place at too early a stage. The clay was still soft and malleable and could easily be moulded into any shape the potter cared to choose. As a result, the new church, by then mostly Gentile, soon lost awareness of being Jewish, indeed, it became progressively anti-Jewish.

Another twist exerted an adverse effect on the appeal of the Christian message to Palestinian and diaspora Jews. Jesus, the charismatic religious Jew, was metamorphosed into the transcendent object of the Christian faith. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by the fiery prophet of Nazareth did not mean much to the average new recruit from Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth or Rome. During the second and third centuries, the leading teachers of the church, trained in Greek philosophy, such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement, Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, substituted for the existential manifesto of Jesus advocating repentance and submission to God, a program steeped in metaphysical speculation on the nature and person of the incarnate Word of God and on the mutual tie between the divine persons of the Most Holy Trinity. They could proceed freely, since by that time there was no longer any Jewish voice in Christendom to sound the alarm.

It is, of course, true that if Christianity had not taken root in the provinces of the Roman empire, it would have remained an insignificant Jewish sect with no external appeal. So when the early church decided that non-Jews could be admitted into the fold, it was logical to attempt a “translation” of the Christian message for the benefit of the non-Jewish world. This inculturation or acculturation is valid provided it does not lead to substantial distortion. To avoid such distortion, it is necessary that the process of adoption remains in the hands of the representatives of the home culture (Judaism in the present case.) However, in the case of Christianity the inculturation was handled by Gentiles who were only superficially acquainted with the Jewish religion of Jesus. As a result, within a relatively short period no Jew was able to find acceptable the new uncultured doctrines of Jesus presented by the church. In fact, I think Jesus himself would have failed to acknowledge it as his own.

Thereafter the growing anti-Judaism of the church distanced Christian culture from the world of Jesus. At the beginning of the fifth century Saint Jerome, the only Hebrew expert of Christendom, compared the sound made by Jewish synagogue worshippers to the grunting of pigs and the braying of donkeys.12 His contemporary, Saint John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, referred to the synagogues of the Jewish Christ-killers as brothels, the citadel of the devil, and the abyss of perdition.13 Later Christian anti-Semites, Luther among them, had such models to imitate. It is worth recording that Julius Streicher, the editor of the notorious Nazi journal, “Der Stürmer”, claimed in his defence before the Allies’ tribunal that if he was guilty of anti-Semitism, so was Luther. His magazine simply repeated Luther’s slogans.

As is well known the age-old religious anti-Semitism continued largely unabated until after the Second World War. Yet it is to be recognized that the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century caused a considerable change. The reformers, inspired by the spirit of the Renaissance, resurrected the Bible and proclaimed the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament the ultimate sources of divine revelation. So the Protestant scholars and Scripture-reading believers were brought closer to the biblical religion, and indirectly closer to Jesus. Still under the impact of the ideals of the Renaissance, Protestant New Testament scholars began to interest themselves in post-biblical Jewish literature. The seventeenth century renowned Cambridge divine, John Lightfoot, recommended to Christians the study of rabbinic literature.14 The Talmud would be useful to them for a deeper understanding of the Gospels, although it poisons the mind of the Jews !

The strange bed-fellowship of anti-Judaic attitude and expertise in Jewish studies continued in Christian circles until the middle of the last century. This is scandalously exemplified in the person of Gerhard Kittel, the editor of the classic ten-volume “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” 15, who was also a regular contributor to official German Nazi anti-Semitic publications. Only the realization of the horror of the Holocaust put this line of “scholarship” beyond the pale.

By then New Testament criticism, begun in the eighteenth century, had made considerable progress and the discovery of many ancient Jewish documents, chief among them the Dead Sea Scrolls, further enriched the field of comparative study. Thus a new era opened in the quest for the original meaning of Christianity. During the last thirty years dozens of books on the historical Jesus began to sprout from every corner of the religious and non-religious scholarly world.

Since 1945 the perspective has changed to an almost unrecognizable extent. Today the Jewishness of Jesus is axiomatic whereas in 1973 the title of my book, “Jesus the Jew”, still shocked conservative Christians. To accept that Jesus was a Jew means not only that he was born into the Jewish people, but that his religion, his culture, his psychology, and his mode of thinking and teaching were all Jewish. Over the last fifty years, Christian and Jewish scholars have worked together and a significant dialogue has developed between enlightened Christians and Jews. The recent penitential pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Israel has further strengthened the atmosphere of friendship.

Jesus the Jew, the charismatic Hasid, meets today with growing recognition, and not just in academic circles or exclusively among professing Christians. With the arrival of the third millennium the time appears ripe for a concerted effort aimed at improving and refining our understanding of the real Jesus and the birth of the Christian movement that arise in his wake.




A lecture delivered at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on 8 June 2001 under the presidency of Professor Ferenc Glatz, President of the Academy


SCM Press, London – Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 1998. Hungarian edition: Gondviselésszerű véletlenek (Osiris, Budapest, 2000)


Les manuscripts du désert de Juda, Desclee, Paris


The Dead Sea Scrolls in English , Penguin , London


The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English , Penguin, London, 1997


Scripture and Tradition in Judaism , Brill, Leiden, 1961


Volumes I-III, T.&T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1973-1987


Jesus the Jew: A Historians’ Reading of the Gospels, Collins, London. It is now available from SCM Press, London. For a Hungarian translation, see A zsidó Jézus, Osiris, Budapest, 1995.


SCM Press, London, 1983


SCM Press, London, 1993.


Penguin, London, 2000 – Viking Penguin, New York, 2001. Hungarian edition: Jézus változó arcai, Osiris, Budapest, 2001.


In Amos: 5:23 (Patrologia Latina XXV, 1054.


Homilia I (Patrologia Graeca XIVIII, 847)


Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae, Leipzig, 1658-1675


Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, Stuttgart, 1933-1976