Most scholars who study the historical Jesus and early Christianity believe that the canonical gospels and the life of Jesus must be viewed within their historical and cultural context, rather than purely in terms of Christian orthodoxy. They look at Second Temple Judaism, the tensions, trends, and changes in the region under the influence of Hellenism and the Roman occupation, and the Jewish factions of the time, seeing Jesus as a Jew in this environment; and the written New Testament as arising from a period of oral gospel traditions after his death.
In 64 BCE, the already partially Hellenized Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea was incorporated into the Roman Republic as a client kingdom when Pompey the Great conquered Jerusalem. The Romans treated Judea as a valued crossroads to trading territories, and as a buffer state against the Parthian Empire. Direct rule was imposed in 6 CE, with the formation of the province of Judea. Roman prefects were appointed to maintain order through a political appointee, the High Priest. After the uprising by Judas the Galilean and before Pontius Pilate (26 CE), in general, Roman Judea was troubled but self-managed. Occasional riots, sporadic rebellions, and violent resistance were an ongoing risk.
Throughout the third quarter of the first century, the conflict between the Jews and the Romans gave rise to increasing tensions. Before the end of the third quarter of the first century, these tensions culminated with the first Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This war effectively flattened Jerusalem, and the city was later rebuilt as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina, in which Jews were forbidden to live.
Historians seek to understand where Jesus and his followers fit among other Jewish factions at the time. According to the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, the three parties in contemporary Judaism were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes, the last of these three being apparently marginalized and in some cases retired to quasi-monastic communities. Josephus also speaks of a "Fourth Movement", Zealots, Lestai or Sicarii.
The Pharisees were a powerful force in 1st-century Judea. Early Christians shared several beliefs of the Pharisees, such as resurrection, retribution in the next world, angels, human freedom, and Divine Providence. After the fall of the Temple, the Pharisaic outlook was established in Rabbinic Judaism. Some scholars speculate that Jesus was himself a Pharisee. In Jesus' day, the two main schools of thought among the Pharisees were the House of Hillel, which had been founded by the eminent Tanna, Hillel the Elder, and the House of Shammai. Jesus' assertion of hypocrisy may have been directed against the stricter members of the House of Shammai, although he agreed with their teachings on divorce.[Mk 10:1–12] Jesus also commented on the House of Hillel's teachings (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) concerning the greatest commandment[Mk 12:28–34] and the Golden Rule.[Mt 7:12] Historians do not know whether there were Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus' life, or what they would have been like.
The Sadducees were particularly powerful in Jerusalem. They accepted the written Law only, rejecting the traditional interpretations accepted by the Pharisees, such as belief in retribution in an afterlife, resurrection of the body, angels, and spirits. After the fall of Jerusalem, they disappeared from history.
The Essenes were apocalyptic ascetics, one of the three (or four) major Jewish schools of the time, although they were not mentioned in the New Testament. Some scholars theorize that Jesus was an Essene, or close to them. Among these scholars is Pope Benedict XVI, who supposes in his book on Jesus that "it appears that not only John the Baptist, but possibly Jesus and his family as well, were close to the Qumran community."
The Zealots were a revolutionary party opposed to Roman rule, one of those parties that, according to Josephus inspired the fanatical stand in Jerusalem that led to its destruction in the year 70 CE. Luke identifies Simon, a disciple, as a "zealot", which might mean a member of the Zealot party or a zealous person. The notion that Jesus himself was a Zealot does not do justice to the earliest Synoptic material describing him. Alternatively, according to Dale Martin of Yale  and supported by Bart Ehrman, as well as an essay by James Still, Jesus has been cast in a Zealot/violent apocalyptic light.
During this period serious theological differences emerged between the Sadducees and Pharisees. Whereas Sadducees favored a limited interpretation of the Torah, Pharisees debated new applications of the law and devised ways for all Jews to incorporate purity practices (hitherto limited to the Jerusalem Temple, see also Ministry of Jesus#Ritual cleanliness) in their everyday lives. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees also believed in (and introduced) the concept of the Resurrection of the Dead in a future, Messianic Age or World to Come. These beliefs seem to have influenced Christians' belief in a resurrected Jesus.
During this time a number of individuals claimed to be prophets, in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. The Talmud provides two examples of such Jewish miracle workers around the time of Jesus. Mishnah Ta'anit 3:8 tells of "Honi the Circledrawer" who, in the middle of the 1st century BCE, was famous for his ability to successfully pray for rain. On one occasion when God did not answer his prayer, he drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.
Mishnah Berakot 5:5 tells of Hanina ben Dosa, who in the generation following Jesus cured Gamaliel's son by prayer (compare with Matthew 8: 5-13). A later story (In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 33a) tells of a lizard that used to injure passers-by. Hanina ben Dosa came and put his heel over the hole; the lizard bit him and died.
Such men were respected for their relationship with God but not considered especially saintly; their abilities were seen as one more unknowable thing and not deemed a result of any ultra-strict observance of Jewish law. These men were sometimes doubted, often respected, and even (according to Géza Vermes) addressed by their followers as "lord" — but never considered "saviors" or "messiahs."
The literal translation of the Hebrew word mashiach (messiah) is "anointed", which refers to a ritual of consecrating someone or something by putting holy anointing oil upon it. It is used throughout the Hebrew Bible in reference to a wide variety of individuals and objects; for example, a Jewish king, Jewish priests and prophets, the Jewish Temple and its utensils, unleavened bread, and a non-Jewish king (Cyrus the Great).
In Jewish eschatology the term came to refer to a future king from the Davidic line who will be "anointed" to be king of God's kingdom and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age. He is considered to be a great military and political leader descended from King David, well versed with the laws that are followed in Judaism.
After the fall of the Hasmoneans and the subsequent Roman occupation, many Jews believed it to be the end of days and hoped that the Romans would somehow fall or be replaced by a Jewish king. Most Jews believed that their history was governed by God, meaning that even the conquest of Judea by the Romans was a divine act. They believed that the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king only through divine intervention.
In 36 CE a Samaritan led a large group up Mount Gerizim, where they believed Moses had buried sacred vessels. Pilate blocked their route and killed their leaders. Josephus, who elsewhere expressed the common Judean prejudice against Samaritans, suggested that they were armed. But the surviving Samaritans appealed to the Syrian Legate, Vitellius, that they were unarmed and that Pilate's actions were excessively cruel. According to historian H.H. Ben-Sasson, Samaria, as part of Roman Judea, was in a sense a "satellite of Syria". As a result, Pilate was sent to Rome and ultimately dismissed from his post as prefect. Another such prophet was Theudas, who, sometime between 44 and 46 led a large group of people to the Jordan river, which he claimed he could part. Cuspius Fadus, a procurator after Pilate, blocked their route and killed Theudas.
When Herod was still military governor in the Galilee, he spent a good deal of time fighting bandits under the leadership of Ezekias. These bandits are best understood as a peasant group whose targets were local elites (both Hasmonean and Herodian) rather than Rome. Ventidius Cumanus (procurator 48 to 52 CE) often retaliated against brigandry by punishing peasant communities he believed to be their base of support. When a Galillean pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem was murdered by a Samaritan, the bandit chief Eliezar organized Galilleans for a counter-attack, and Cumanus moved against the Jews. A Syrian legate, Quadratus, intervened and sent several Jewish and Samaritan officials to Rome. The Emperor Claudius took the Jewish side, and had the Samaritan leaders executed and exiled, and turned one named Veler over to the Jews who beheaded him. Thus, widespread peasant unrest of this period was not exclusively directed against Rome but also expressed discontent against urban elites and other groups; Roman policy sought to contain the power of the bandits while cultivating Jewish support.
During the First Jewish-Roman War in 66, Josephus was sent to command the Galilee. He raised an army primarily of local bandits who pillaged nearby Greek and Roman cities (including ones occupied by Jewish elites), including the administrative centers of Sepphoris, Tiberias, and Gabara (sometimes Gadara). This suggests that they were concerned primarily with gain or social insurrection against local elites, rather than a political revolution against Roman occupation. When Roman legions arrived from Syria, the bandit army melted away.
The Romans employed a scorched earth policy in its fight in the north, driving thousands of peasants southwards towards Jerusalem. Between 67 and 68, these peasants, perhaps led by bandits, formed a new political party called the Zealots, which believed that an independent kingdom should be restored immediately through force of arms. It is unclear whether their leaders made messianic claims. The Zealots imprisoned members of the Herodian family, killed the former high priests Ananus ben Ananus and Joshua ben Gamla, and put on trial the wealthiest citizens. It is possible that they believed they were purging elements whom they believed would have surrendered to the Romans. But these purges also reveal the great social divide between Jewish peasants and aristocrats at this time. They formed part of a social revolution: although they ultimately lost to the Romans, elite groups like the Hasmoneans, Herodians, and Sadducees would never again have power in Roman Judea.
Most historians view the gospels not as an objective account of Jesus, but as the product of men writing at a particular period, and grappling with particular theological as well as political issues. Specifically, they assume that, after Jesus's death, his sayings and stories about him circulated among his followers until, at some point in the mid-1st century, someone (or a group of people) wrote his sayings down in Greek (see Q source) and someone edited and organized stories about his life into a historical narrative: the Gospel of Mark. As these two documents circulated among Christians, other historical narratives were edited and organized. The four gospels ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were regionally authoritative by proto-orthodoxy by the 2nd century. Some historians have suggested that, between Nero's persecution of Christians in 64 CE and the Jewish revolt in 66 CE, Gentile Christians saw more sense in giving Jews, rather than Romans, responsibility for Jesus' death.
Moreover, just as Rabbinic Judaism was in part the Pharisaic response to their acknowledgment that the Temple would not be rebuilt in their lifetimes, Christianity reflected the acknowledgment of early Christians that the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of God's kingdom on earth was not to happen in their lifetimes. The critical analysis of the Gospels involves, at least in part, a consideration of how these concerns affected the Gospels' accounts of Jesus.
According to historian Paula Fredriksen (1988: 5), critical scholars rely on four basic criteria for extrapolating an "authentic" historical account of Jesus out of the New Testament sources:
As Fredriksen observes, these criteria do not guarantee an accurate historical reconstruction. Nevertheless, she argues,
Even these criteria are not sufficient to recover "what really happened." They can, however, enable historians to suggest "with reasonable security what possibly happened, what probably happened, and what could not possibly have happened.
According to Fredriksen, two events in the Gospels probably happened: John's baptism and Pilate's crucifixion of Jesus. These events are mentioned in all four gospels. Moreover, they do not conform to Jewish tradition in which there are no baptized and crucified messiahs. They are also embarrassing to the early Church. John the Baptist's prominence in both the gospels and Josephus suggests that he may have been more popular than Jesus in his lifetime; also, Jesus' mission does not begin until after his baptism by John. Fredriksen suggests that it was only after Jesus' death that Jesus emerged as more influential than John. Accordingly, the gospels project Jesus' posthumous importance back to his lifetime. Ways this was accomplished were by minimizing John's importance by having John resist baptizing Jesus (Matthew), by referring to the baptism in passing (Luke), or by asserting Jesus' superiority (John).
Given the historical context in which the Gospels took their final form and during which Christianity first emerged, historians have struggled to understand Jesus' ministry in terms of what is known about 1st century Judaism. According to scholars such as Geza Vermes and E.P. Sanders, Jesus seems not to have belonged to any particular party or movement; Jesus was eclectic (and perhaps unique) in combining elements of many of these different—and for most Jews, opposing—positions. Most critical scholars see Jesus as healing people and performing miracles in the prophetic tradition of the Galilee, and preaching God's desire for justice and righteousness in the prophetic tradition of Judea. (According to Geza Vermes, that Jesus' followers addressed him as "lord" indicates that they likened him to notable miracle workers and scribes. See Names and titles of Jesus)
Historians also often note that as Jesus was Jewish, his life, words, and teachings must be understood in the context of 1st century Judaism, his native culture, see for example Aramaic of Jesus. Moreover, they highlight 1st and 2nd century Judaism — especially after the destruction of the Temple — as being in a state of flux, consisting of a variety of sects.
As the Gospel accounts are generally held to have been composed in the period immediately following the revolt of 66–73, it has been suggested that Christians had to refashion their theological and apocalyptic claims given that Jesus did not immediately return to restore the Jewish kingdom. Moreover, as Christianity emerged as a new religion seeking converts among the gentiles, and eventually as the religion of the emperor himself, it needed to assure both Roman authorities and prospective Gentile audiences that it neither threatened nor challenged imperial sovereignty. Some historians have argued that these two conditions played a crucial role in the revision of accounts of Jesus' life and teachings into the form they ultimately took in the Gospels.
As with many religions, no precise date of founding is agreed by all parties. Christians traditionally believe that Christianity began with Jesus' ministry, and the appointment of the Twelve Apostles or the Seventy Disciples, see also Great Commission. Most historians agree that Jesus or his followers established a new Jewish sect, one that attracted both Jewish and Gentile converts. Historians continue to debate the precise moment when Christianity established itself as a new religion, apart and distinct from Judaism. Some Christians were still part of the Jewish community up until the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in the 130s, see also Jewish Christians. As late as the 4th century, John Chrysostom strongly discouraged Christians from attending Jewish festivals in Antioch, which suggests at least some ongoing contact between the two groups in that city. Similarly for the Council of Laodicea around 365. See also Shabbat, Sabbath in Christianity, Quartodeciman, Constantine I and Christianity. According to historian Shaye J. D. Cohen,
According to Cohen, this process ended in 70 CE, after the great revolt, when various Jewish sects disappeared and Pharisaic Judaism evolved into Rabbinic Judaism, and Christianity emerged as a distinct religion. Many historians argue that the Gospels took their final form after the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple, although some scholars put the authorship of Mark in the 60s, and need to be understood in this context. They view Christians as much as Pharisees as being competing movements within Judaism that decisively broke only after the Bar Kokhba's revolt, when the successors of the Pharisees claimed hegemony over all Judaism, and – at least from the Jewish perspective – Christianity emerged as a new religion.
By 66 CE, Jewish discontent with Rome had escalated. At first, the priests tried to suppress rebellion, even calling upon the Pharisees for help. After the Roman garrison failed to stop Hellenists from desecrating a synagogue in Caesarea, however, the high priest suspended payment of tribute, inaugurating the First Jewish–Roman War. In 70, the Temple was destroyed. The destruction of the Second Temple was a profoundly traumatic experience for the Jews, who were now confronted with difficult and far-reaching questions:
How people answered these questions depended largely on their position prior to the revolt. But the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans not only put an end to the revolt, it marked the end of an era. Revolutionaries like the Zealots had been crushed by the Romans, and had little credibility (the last Zealots died at Masada in 73). The Sadducees, whose teachings were so closely connected to the Temple cult, disappeared. The Essenes also vanished, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the issues of the times that the destruction of the Second Temple was of no consequence to them; precisely for this reason, they were of little consequence to the vast majority of Jews).
Two organized groups remained: the Early Christians, and Pharisees. Some scholars, such as Daniel Boyarin and Paula Fredricksen, suggest that it was at this time, when Christians and Pharisees were competing for leadership of the Jewish people, that accounts of debates between Jesus and the apostles, debates with Pharisees, and anti-Pharisaic passages, were written and incorporated into the New Testament.
The siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE included a major fire at the Temple which destroyed all except the Western Wall; what remained (including the altar tablet) was taken by Titus to Rome as trophies. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the loss of significant portions of Jewish cultural records were significant, with Flavius Josephus writing (about 5 year later c. 75 AD) in The Jewish War (Book VII 1.1) that Jerusalem had been flattened to the point that "there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited." And once what was left of the ruins of Jerusalem had been turned into the Roman settlement of Aelia Capitolina, no Jews were allowed to set foot in it; and almost no direct records survive about the history of Judaism from the last part of the first century through the second century.
Margaret M. Mitchell writes that although Eusebius reports (Ecclesiastical History III 5.3) that the early Christians left Jerusalem for Pella just before Jerusalem was subjected to the final lock down in 70, in the face of this total destruction we must accept that no first hand Christian document from the early Jerusalem Church has reached us.
Following the destruction of the Temple, Rome governed Judea both through a Procurator at Caesarea, which had always been the Roman provincial capital, and through a Jewish Patriarch. A former leading Pharisee, Yohanan ben Zakkai, was appointed the first Patriarch (the Hebrew word, Nasi, also means prince, or president), and he reestablished the Sanhedrin at Javneh under Pharisee control. Instead of giving tithes to the priests and sacrificing offerings at the Temple, the rabbis instructed Jews to give money to charities and study in local synagogues, as well as to pay the Fiscus Iudaicus.
In 132, the Emperor Hadrian threatened to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city dedicated to Jupiter, called Aelia Capitolina. Some of the leading sages of the Sanhedrin supported a rebellion (and, for a short time, an independent state) led by Simon bar Kochba; some, such as Rabbi Akiva, believed Bar Kochba to be messiah, or king. Up until this time, a number of Christians were still part of the Jewish community. However, they did not support or take part in the revolt. Whether because they had no wish to fight, or because they could not support a second messiah in addition to Jesus, or because of their harsh treatment by Bar Kochba during his brief reign, these Christians also left the Jewish community around this time. Traditionally, it is believed the Jerusalem Christians waited out the Jewish–Roman wars in Pella in the Decapolis.
This revolt ended in 135 when Bar Kochba and his army were defeated. According to a midrash, in addition to Bar Kochba the Romans tortured and executed ten leading members of the Sanhedrin (the "Ten Martyrs"). This account also claims this was belated repayment for the guilt of the ten brothers who kidnapped Joseph. It is possible that this account represents a Pharisaic response to the Christian account of Jesus' crucifixion; in both accounts the Romans brutally punish rebels, who accept their torture as atonement for the crimes of others.
After the suppression of the revolt, the vast majority of Jews were sent into exile; shortly thereafter (around 200), Judah haNasi edited together judgements and traditions into an authoritative code, the Mishna. This marks the transformation of Pharisaic Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism.
Although the Rabbis traced their origins to the Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism nevertheless involved a radical repudiation of certain elements of Phariseism – elements that were basic to Second Temple Judaism. The Pharisees had been partisan. Members of different sects argued with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations, see also Hillel and Shammai. After the destruction of the Second Temple, these sectarian divisions ended. The term "Pharisee" was no longer used, perhaps because it was a term more often used by non-Pharisees, but also because the term was explicitly sectarian. The Rabbis claimed leadership over all Jews, and added to the Amidah the birkat haMinim (see Council of Jamnia), a prayer which in part exclaims, "Praised are You O Lord, who breaks enemies and defeats the arrogant," and which is understood as a rejection of sectarians and sectarianism. This shift by no means resolved conflicts over the interpretation of the Torah; rather, it relocated debates between sects to debates within Rabbinic Judaism.
Paula Fredriksen, in From Jesus to Christ, has suggested that Jesus' impact on his followers was so great that they could not accept this failure. According to the New Testament, some Christians believed that they encountered Jesus after his crucifixion; they argued that he had been resurrected (the belief in the resurrection of the dead in the messianic age was a core Pharisaic doctrine), and would soon return to usher in the Kingdom of God and fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the Resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. Others adapted Gnosticism as a way to maintain the vitality and validity of Jesus' teachings (see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels). Since early Christians believed that Jesus had already replaced the Temple as the expression of a new covenant, they were relatively unconcerned with the destruction of the Temple, though it came to be viewed as symbolic of the doctrine of supersessionism.
According to historians of Hellenistic Judaism, Jesus' failure to establish the Kingdom of God, and his death at the hands of the Romans, invalidated any messianic claims (see for comparison: prophet and false prophet).
According to many historians, most of Jesus' teachings were intelligible and acceptable in terms of Second Temple Judaism; what set Christians apart from Jews was their faith in Christ as the resurrected messiah. The belief in a resurrected Messiah is unacceptable to Jews today and to Rabbinic Judaism, and Jewish authorities have long used this fact to explain the break between Judaism and Christianity. Recent work by historians paints a more complex portrait of late Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. Some historians have suggested that, before his death, Jesus forged among his believers such certainty that the Kingdom of God and the resurrection of the dead was at hand, that with few exceptions (John 20: 24-29) when they saw him shortly after his execution, they had no doubt that he had been resurrected, and that the restoration of the Kingdom and resurrection of the dead was at hand. These specific beliefs were compatible with Second Temple Judaism. In the following years the restoration of the Kingdom as Jews expected it failed to occur. Some Christians believed instead that Christ, rather than being the Jewish messiah, was God made flesh, who died for the sins of humanity, and that faith in Jesus Christ offered everlasting life (see Christology).
The foundation for this new interpretation of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection are found in the epistles of Paul and in the Book of Acts. Most Jews view Paul as the founder of Christianity, who is responsible for the break with Judaism. Recently, Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin has argued that Paul's theology of the spirit is more deeply rooted in Hellenistic Judaism than generally believed. In A Radical Jew Boyarin argues that Paul the Apostle combined the life of Jesus with Greek philosophy to reinterpret the Hebrew Bible in terms of the Platonic opposition between the ideal (which is real) and the material (which is false); see also Paul the Apostle and Judaism. Judaism is a corporeal religion, in which membership is based not on belief but rather descent from Abraham, physically marked by circumcision, and focusing on how to live this life properly. Paul saw in the symbol of a resurrected Jesus the possibility of a spiritual rather than corporeal messiah. He used this notion of messiah to argue for a religion through which all people — not just descendants of Abraham — could worship the God of Abraham. Unlike Judaism, which holds that it is the proper religion only of the Jews, Pauline Christianity claimed to be the proper religion for all people.
In other words, by appealing to the Platonic distinction between the material and the ideal, Paul showed how the spirit of Christ could provide all people a way to worship God — the God who had previously been worshipped only by Jews, although Jews claimed that he was the one and only God of all. Boyarin roots Paul's work in Hellenistic Judaism and insists that Paul was thoroughly Jewish. But, Boyarin argues, Pauline theology made his version of Christianity so appealing to Gentiles. Nevertheless, Boyarin also sees this Platonic reworking of both Jesus's teachings and Pharisaic Judaism as essential to the emergence of Christianity as a distinct religion, because it justified a Judaism without Jewish law (see also New Covenant).
The above events and trends lead to a gradual separation between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. According to historian Shaye J.D. Cohen, "Early Christianity ceased to be a Jewish sect when it ceased to observe Jewish practices.
Among the Jewish practices abandoned by proto-orthodox Christianity, Circumcision was rejected as a requirement at the Council of Jerusalem, c. 50, Sabbath observance was modified, perhaps as early as Ignatius' Epistle to the Magnesians 9.1. Quartodecimanism (observation of the Paschal feast on Nisan 14, the day of preparation for Passover, linked to Polycarp and thus to John the Apostle) was formally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea.