It is worth stating at the outset that there can be no definitive account in historical research, and we should not confuse reconstructions of any significant figure of history with the real person. Despite the claims of some investigators, it is always only possible to assess probabilities, and the more significant the statement the more contentious it is likely to be - different perspectives and endless revisions are inevitable, for any given portrait tends to highlight a few specifics and cannot do justice to the complexities. The Jesus of history remains elusive, tantalising, intriguing - still he comes to us as one unknown -and the gospels themselves indicate a certain enigma about the person whose story they tell.
Nevertheless, curiosity still drives the questions: what really happened? What was Jesus really like? What was his mission all about? Can we be in touch with the Jesus who once lived and died a Jew in first-century Palestine? Perhaps a few plausible inferences are possible. Clearly Jesus and his activities must be set as far as possible within the social context ofthe Galilee and Judaea of his time. Also some explanation must be offered for his crucifixion by the Romans, for his handing over by the Jewish authorities (probably), and for the response of his followers - for it is likely that an account of his words, deeds and personality which makes plausible this threefold reaction will have some truth in it. It is inevitable that the brief account here offered implicitly mirrors or rejects the work of the many scholars who have attended to these questions in the past 200 years. 80
The crucifixion is the best-attested fact concerning Jesus. The display of the titulus on the cross accords with known practice: the intention in thus advertising the charge was to make a public example of someone condemned. The gospels report that it read, 'The king oftheJews'. The stories ofthe soldiers' horseplay revolve around that royal claim. At the heart of the trial scenes lies the same accusation. The memory of Jesus in the gospels is of someone who provoked speculation that he might be the Messiah' (or anointed one'), the ' son of David', in other words the hoped-for king who was to restore Israel. Scholarship has revealed a wide range of hopes for the future in the literature of Second Temple Judaism, of which one was the return of a Davidic kingdom. It is said (John 6:15) that the crowds tried to make him king after the miraculous feeding; whatever happened on that occasion, the story enshrines expectation
80 To justify every point made in the following is impossible; footnotes only make specific acknowledgements. See further pt ii, chs. 4 and 7, below.
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