Review: “Inquiry into Jesus” “Inchiesta su Gesù” By M. Pesce & C. Augias

IMG_6629Having been released for publication last September – with a second edition printed in October – the book, in which journalist Corrado Augias and Prof. Mauro Pesce, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Bologna, discuss – initially by asking questions and secondly by giving responses – on the topic of Jesus, «the man who changed the world». Augias professes to be a “non-Catholic” and does not consider Jesus as being the “son of God” (p. 239), but is enquiring so as to get to “know Jesus, better known as Christ, who has profoundly influenced the history of the world”: that is, getting to know Jesus as he really was, before “the liturgies, the doctrines, the myths which transformed his memory into a cult, a cult within a faith, a faith within one of the greatest religions of humanity” (p. 3). 

Professor Pesce has perpetuated himself as a historical researcher, expressing “convictions to which he arrived after what seems to have been a long and honest search”. Therefore – he states – “in the dialogues condensed in this book I have always attempted to constrain myself within the confines of history, avoiding the encroachment of my own personal convictions on faith” (p. 236). He is “convinced that rigorous historical research will not distance us from the faith, and does not push us towards it“. In essence, the Jesus that the Christian faith professes must be distinguished from that of the researched historical Jesus. 

In summary, the thoughts of Pesce as summarised by himself: “Jesus was a Jew who did not want to start a new religion. […] He was convinced that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was beginning to transform the world so as to finally establish his kingdom upon earth. He was completely focused on God and prayed to understand his will and obtain his revelations, but he was also totally focused on the needs of mankind, especially the sick, the poorest and those who were treated unfairly. His message was inseparably both social and mystical. The kingdom of God did not arrive and, indeed, he was put to death by the Romans for political reasons. His disciples, who came from the most varied backgrounds, gave different interpretations from the very beginning. They questioned his death by providing different explanations and many of them were convinced that he had resurrected. A certain number of his followers remained within their Jewish communities, while others gave life to an entirely new religion following the different currents of the time, Christianity” (p. 237). 

Jesus is a Jew, not Christian 

So the central concept of the publication I have examined is that Jesus has nothing at all to do with Christianity, that he did not establish it nor wanted to establish it: an idea that is expressed within the aphorism of “Jesus is Jewish, not Christian”. 

The dialogue between Augias and Pesce begins with a question: “What can we know about Jesus?” Pesce replies: “A historically reconstructed Jesus is as possible as it is for any other person in the past. The sources are however particular, and the research is based on lacuna, contradictory and manipulated texts” (p. 8). These sources are the Gospels, canonical and non-canonical. Among these Gospels the Church chose four, and rejected others as “apocryphal” and therefore condemning them to oblivion. The reasons for this choice “is complex, motivationally uncertain, it could have had something to do with some practical or doctrinal tumult that always accompanies the birth and rise of a new movement, especially when it is proclaimed as directly inspired by God” (p. 10). However, “they are not clear. It can be said that those containing an overly Jewish image of Jesus or those that seemed to give a Gnostic or spiritualistic perception, like the Gospel of Thomas, were excluded” (p. 21). In any case, “the believer who attends a Church […] does not, as a primary pursuit seek to know Jesus historically” (p.22). The Church has no historical interests because “historical research digs into and highlights the differences within the Gospels, the variants that where introduced after the death of Jesus, and this is not something that the faithful can easily accept” (p. 23). Moreover, “the Gospels, normally considered as the primary sources for knowledge on Jesus, in reality are one of the first sources of the  Christianisation of his figure”. 

Realistically, Jesus would only have been Jewish and he would have been totally so: “The novelty, an important novelty, which has occurred in the last half century of biblical studies, was precisely the recovery and the rediscovery of the Hebrew part of Jesus, whereas previously christianity’s anti-Judaism tended to make it a great critic of the Jewish religion” (p. 24). To tell the truth “there is not a single idea nor custom,  that are not entirely Hebraic in the main initiatives of Jesus […]. All the fundamental concepts expressed by Jesus are Hebraic: the kingdom of God and redemption, the final judgment, the love of you neighbour. He believes as any Jewish Pharisee in the resurrection of the body and not as the Greek’s did who only believed in the immortality of the soul […]. He believes that he was sent by God to preach only to the Jews and not others” (p. 26s). Jesus strictly respected the prescriptions of the Torah, including those concerning food. “It is the Christians after him who have neglected them” (p. 28). Like every “devout Jew”, Jesus prayed. Therefore, “Jesus is a Jewish man who does not identify himself as identical to God. One does not pray to God if one think one is God” (p. 28). 

Jesus taught us the Our Father: but this prayer “has nothing Christian in it. Any religious Jew could recite it without having to convert to Christianity. In this prayer Jesus is never named. He serves no function in the salvation of humanity” (p. 30). On the one hand, Christians see Jesus as a supernatural being, with whom we must relate to in order for us to obtain salvation. “present-day historians on the other hand see Jesus as a man and are therefore also able to rediscover his Jewishness” (p. 30). 

To conclude, there is a radical “difference between the Jewish Jesus and the Christian Jesus: the Christian Jesus is he of whom St Paul give utterance to: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”. The Jewish Jesus says: it is God who forgives sins […]. When he taught the Our Father, Jesus did not think he should die for the sins of mankind” (p. 29). Therefore “his message is substantially different from that of subsequent Christianity” (p. 55). “Jesus is both a mystic and a great religious dreamer, who tries to place justice at the centre of the world” (p. 62). There is therefore “a fundamental difference, I would almost say a discontinuity: if we want, a betrayal by Christianity, with regard to Jesus” (p. 68). 

Jesus is not the Son of God 

But who was the “Jew” who was Jesus historically, that is, liberated from the dogmatic incrustation with which Christianity have clothed him? Pesce believes that Jesus was born, not in Bethlehem, but “in Galilee, probably in Nazareth” (p. 10) and that “the father was Joseph and the mother is Mary” (p. 11). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke affirm the virginal conception of Jesus, that is, that Mary would have conceived Jesus miraculously, by the exertion of God, without the intervention of Joseph. Luke adds that he who is conceived in Mary “by the work of the Holy Spirit” will be called “son of God”. Matthew sees within the virginal conception, a Jesus who is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, according to which “the virgin (almah) will conceive and bear a son who will be called Immanuel”, [עִמָּנוּאֵל], meaning “God with us”. Professor Pesce points out that this insistence of the virginal birth of Jesus “the need to show that the life of Jesus brought into fulfilment some prophecy of the Hebrew Bible” and the “influence of Hellenistic culture on young Greek-Christian communities”, since “the history of classicism is full of divine or semi-divine figures whose birth was said to be supernatural”, due to the gods (particularly Zeus) who had occasion to join with women. (p. 90). 

With reference to the phrase “Son of God” – once again Pesce observes – which at the time of Jesus was quite common. Son of God was a title that could be given to Roman emperors, like Augustus, to the kings of Israel, to philosophers like Plato and Pythagoras. “In short, the term as such does not express a divine nature of Jesus” (p. 91). Nor is this expression “connected in an exclusive or privileged way to a Messiah, nor does it indicate a messianic role in itself” (p. 91). The Gospel of Mark is the most persistent in applying this allonym to Jesus. God himself proclaims it twice. “Be careful, though: for Mark, Jesus was a man. The term “son of God” has been interpreted as if he really meant to refer to “God” but only at the end of his gospel, inserted into the New Testament, read in light of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus was the “word of God made flesh”. (p. 92).

Homosexual’ relations among the disciples of Jesus 

There follows an astonishing chapter in which Augias, with a somewhat morbid insistence, revives the old insinuations and hypotheses that the disciples of Jesus cultivated “homosexual relationships” (p. 123); that is between Jesus and his disciples whom Jesus “loved” and that there was “a real amitié amoureuse […] even if not always effectuating an explicitly erotic relationship” (p. 120); that Jesus had a special relationship with Mary Magdalene going as far as to kiss her on the mouth, as is said in the apocryphal Gospel of Philip (see p. 121) and, finally, that before his arrest he had spent the night with the boy who had escaped arrest, leaving him in the hands of those who wanted to take away the sheet which was covering him, (see p. 124): the presuppositions and inferences which Prof. Pesce holds as being “without foundation” (p. 123), “absurdity” (p. 124) or “interpretative errata of the texts” (p. 129), but which  are insisted upon by Augias at the end of the novel, the two authors simply contradict each others work. 

On Jesus the miracle worker – who is redefined as “Jesus the magician – Charlatan or Son of God?” (a title which the illustrious American scholar and professor of ancient history at Columbia University, Morton Smith gave to his book on Jesus who had sprung from a Galilean sect of Semitic pagans) – Pesce is rather reticent: he recognises that there may have been “some healings or even resurrection phenomena  might have occurred here and there, that he worked in an unexplainable manner in light of science” (p. 113), but notes that “Jesus needed these miracles to instil faith to those who listened to him” (ibid.). Moreover, when Jesus becomes aware of these powers, he tries to understand where they came from and to what extent he is able to control them: what in others aroused nothing but admiration created a deep inner turmoil within him; we see him resorting to prayer in an attempt to receive some enlightenment. “It could be said that Jesus was a mystery not only to others, but also to himself […]. He himself has probably tried to clarify the mystery of divine intervention in his life. He did so often by praying, asking God to enlighten him. It is one of my hypothesis” encourage by the fact that during the incident of the Transfiguration he “invoked Elijah and Moses so as to clarify his future destiny” (p, 134s). Pesce states that he is “convinced” that the miraculous episodes, such as the resurrection of Lazarus or the multiplication of the loaves, “were not invented, but that his followers were really convinced that they had witnessed these extraordinary events  (p. 134). 

I found this chapter contradicting his previous suppositions in “Jesus is a Jew, not Christian” where he informed us that “Jesus has nothing at all to do with Christianity, that he did not establish it nor wanted to establish it”, yet we are then asked to believe that he used confidence tricks and slights of hand as a magician because, as Pesce notes “Jesus needed these miracles to instil faith to those who listened to him” (p. 113). I frankly fail to see to what end if he was not the “Son of God” and was not “starting a new religion”, why place himself in such a precarious position especially under a Roman occupation, strict religious guidelines of the religio licita (a permitted religion which Rome had approved) which most of the country observed; where any deviation could send you to your death.  A magician raising the dead in earshot of the Romans, the Sanhedrin and Pharisees. The rabbis condemned magic as one of the “ways of the Amorites(Mishnah Shabbat 6:10), and they sanction its practitioners to death by stoning (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:7).  Furthermore sexual intercourse between males is a to’eivah (something that is abhorred or detested) and was subject to capital punishment by the Sanhedrin under halakha (Jewish law).  As for the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus (I forget was he supposed to be gay of straight or polyamorous – according to Pesce) in Judaism, extramarital sex is universally frowned upon; it falls under a biblical prohibition. Nevertheless, even when begin to note the futile efforts of an author trying to justify his spurious hypothesis (much in the same manner as the Da Vinci Code which I wrote about here) yet I have to continue to read the book in order to review it.

Jesus is not really risen 

The crucial days of Jesus’ life are the last days: he is arrested on a Thursday night, is tried, crucified and dies on Friday. Pesce believes that the cause of Jesus’ arrest is the danger he represents to the fate of the Jewish nation. Note then that it was not Jesus who instituted the Eucharist, of which neither the Gospel of John nor the Gospel of Thomas spoke. From this “some biblicists have deduced that, after the death of Jesus, some Christian groups created the ritual of the Last Supper”. This was not “a case of a historical event or a formal institution established by Jesus” (p. 141). But then stating: “I believe it is impossible to deny that Jesus consumed a particular supper before his arrest, celebrating a ritual around bread and wine” (p. 146). In any case, the fact is that the Gospel of John does not speak of a Eucharist, but of the washing of feet, while the Synoptic Gospels focus their attention on the institution of a Eucharist “doesl not allow us to think that the version in the synoptic gospels is more dependable than that of John’s” (p. 147).

Speaking of the stories of the Passion, Pesce observes that they do not report any facts that actually occurred, but that “they are only interpretations of faith on the basis of a historical nucleus” (p. 157). In reality “the editors of the Gospels have transformed or created a series of episodes that, in fact, did not occur. Among the historically invented facts is the episode of Barabbas”(p. 158). 

Regarding the resurrection of Jesus, Pesce noted that “his ‘proof’ are entirely based on the apparitions that occurred after his death on the cross” (p. 175), which – as in the case of the apparition of Jesus to Mary Magdalene – could be defined as “hysterical visions” or hallucinations: in other words, “as a result of desire, a powerful projection of the subconscious” (p. 177). Moreover, “today some Catholic scholars interpret these apparitions of the risen Jesus as an altered state of consciousness” (page 182). In conclusion “the apparitions of the risen are only visions” (p. 184). Jesus therefore did not “really” rise , but it would have been his disciples who believed that he had, they had “seen” it: but in reality where only hallucinating. 

Who is Jesus then, according to Prof. Pesce? Certainly not the Son of God made man, which the Church professes on the basis of the testimony of his disciples who lived with him, ate with him, spoke with him and accompanied him throughout most of His ministry: a testimony contained in the four canonical Gospels, which are therefore an essential source in our knowledge of Jesus. “Jesus is obsessed with the evil that dominates the world […]. For him God is the Father who can save and who gave him the extraordinary power to restore and to heal. But God also seems to be incomprehensible to him. Throughout his life Jesus tries to know what God wants; in the end he feels abandoned and does not understand why God destined him to such an unjust end, to a humiliating defeat as well as atrocious sufferings. To him he attributes his defeat and for this reason he accepts it, even if he does not understand it” (p. 213). Thus, according to Prof. Pesce, Jesus is nothing more than a poor man who feels a tragic destiny looming over his head, which he indisputably accepts, without even a comprehension of him: “He continues to believe that God is strong, powerful and beneficial, even if he allows him to be killed” (p. 213) and abandoned to the forces of evil. 

Thus, according to Pesce, Jesus is not the Savior of men who consciously goes towards suffering and a horrendously tortured death simply so as “even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). He submits himself to an atrocious death, simply because this is what God wants from him but he seems not to understand why this is being asked of him. Jesus is a “lonely man”, who prays to God to reveal to him what is expected of him. 

Critical remarks

The first general relief to be made is that in the novel “Inchiesta su Gesù” Christianity is denied in its entirety. In fact, all essential Christian truths are here denied or derided in some way or another, such as the divinity of Jesus, his incarnation, his virginal conception, the redemptive character of his death, his resurrection from death. These realities of faith – says Pesce in essence – would be parasitic incrustations with which the Church has covered the historical figure of Jesus, turning him into a divine being, the Logos made flesh of which the Gospel of John speaks. The task of exegesis is to liberate from the incrustations, which pervert the historical figure of Jesus. Hence the insistence of Pesce on the absolute Jewishness of Jesus and his conviction that Jesus was “Christianised”, and therefore entirely fabricated, even his being the founder of Christianity.

What seems to us to be absolutely unacceptable precisely at a historical level is the fragmentation that Prof. Pesce expounds between the “Jesus of history” the ‘real’ “Jewish Jesus” and that of the “Jesus of the faith” the “Christianised Jesus” who has disappeared “under a dense blanket of theology”. In reality, this fragmentation does not exist. 

Undoubtedly Jesus was a Jew: he was circumcised on the eighth day after birth according to the Law; He was given a Hebrew name (Jehoshua, which means “God saves”); as a child he attended the synagogue of his country every Saturday (Nazareth), where he learned Sacred Scripture; when he turned 12, he went on a pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem; like all adult Jews (they were also famous scribes) he exercised a manual trade. The only thing that distinguished him was the fact that he was not married. When he left his country to begin the ministry of an itinerant preacher, the first thing he did was go to John the Baptist and, like other Jews, he was baptised by him. He wanted to restrict his preaching to the people of Israel.

Jesus therefore was a “Jew”, but we must contradict Prof. Pesce when he says that Jesus did not criticise the Jewish religion; that there is no idea or custom, no initiative that is not entirely Jewish; that all the concepts he expressed are Jewish; that Jesus respected, to the letter all the prescriptions of the Torah, including those concerning food. 

As for the Jewish religion, or rather, as for the Torah, Jesus certainly considered it an expression of God’s will, but on the one hand he corrected certain interpretations that the scribes gave it, as in the case of the Korban: “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8); on the other, he brought the divorce, permitted by Deuteronomy (24:4), back to the genuine original project of marriage, stating that man must not separate what God has joined in the creative act of man and woman (cf. Genesis 1:27; 2:24). But what is most important and significant is that Jesus does not mean “to abolish the Law” but “to fulfil it” and therefore to highlight its profound needs, which go far beyond what “was said to the ancients” (Matthew 5:17-31). About the foods, which the Leviticus divided into pure and impure, Jesus, says Mark, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19), noting that “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” (Mark 7:15).

In conclusion Jesus, in the wake of the ancient Law, proclaims a new Law, which does not contradict the first, but does it, asking, for example, “not to oppose the evil”, “to love your enemies” and “to pray for your persecutors” (Matthew 5:39-44): certain things that the Torah did not prescribe. As for the observance of the Sabbath, Jesus diverged deeply from the scribes and the Pharisees, proclaiming that “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Therefore it is permissible to perform healings and tear off the ears to feed on the Sabbath. Equally scandalous is the conduct that Jesus holds with publicans, sinners, women of ill repute. All things that show that Jesus is, yes, a “Jew”, but that he comes out of the Judaic frameworks of his time. It is therefore not clear how one can affirm that there is nothing in Jesus that is not “wholly Jewish”. 

Jesus and the Father

Pesce also wonders about the affirmation that Jesus prayed because he did not feel identical to God: “We would not pray to God” says Pesce “if we think we are God” (p. 28). Jesus’s prayer, often made during the night, is a “filial” conversation with the Father, whom Jesus addresses with the affectionate term of abba (a term that is not found – unless it has escaped us – in the volume we are discussing). Yet it is a term of very great importance, which allows us to penetrate into the interior life of Jesus, or rather, into the “mystery” of his “filial” conscience. In reality, God is “his Father”, in a different manner from being the Father of all mankind, so speaking to his disciples he utters “my Father” (Matthew 7:21) and “your Heavenly Father” (Matthew 6:26), he never says “our Father”, that is, placing himself and his disciples in a position of equality. 

Pesce also marvels at the statement that the prayer taught to the disciples by Jesus – the Our Father – has nothing Christian, but is totally Jewish. We know that the term Father is very little used in the Old Testament, where it only appears fifteen times, and is applied to all people, not to individuals, except for the king, who alone can say to JHWH: “You are my father, my God and the rock of my salvation” (Psalms 88:1 89:26). For Jesus the term “Father” is the proper name of God, and all men – not just Jews – are his sons. Regarding the totally Jewish character of the Our Father, the catholic exegete and theologian Heinz Schürmann wrote: “All those who say that when Jesus prays the Our Father he does so as a Jew and every Jew can join in this prayer are quite right; each sentence can be documented with an identical or similar Jewish texts […]. But the “peculiar Jesuanic aspect” the prayer of Jesus allowed Hebraism to “leap”. Only in the complexity of the Our Father has he perceived this “peculiar Jesuanic aspect” […] as implicit inchoate christology, has understood the prayer of Jesus in its depth”. That is, only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God can recite the Our Father in its profundity and authenticity. 

Jesus and Christianity 

The assertion that Jesus is not a Christian seems very incongruous to us, along with that he neither founded nor wanted to found a new religion, Christianity. In fact, he addressed his preaching “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6): to this end he called on twelve disciples to follow him, so that “they would stay with him and also to send them to preach” (Mark 3:14-15). But his message was not accepted by the people of Israel nor its leaders. Here then he consecrates himself to the instruction of his disciples and of persons – men and women – who believe in him: he teaches them to pray, to see the Father in God who loves them, who takes care of them; teaches them the righteous use of riches, the forgiveness of offences; in his last supper, on the eve of his death, he institutes a new Easter rite and asks the Twelve to reiterate it in his memory. After his death and his resurrection, his disciples, whilst remaining within Judaism, form an autonomous group, which has as its leaders (the Twelve), its own particular rite – with the repetition of the gestures performed by Jesus in his Last Supper – the teachings of Jesus. Precisely this small group of the followers of Jesus forms his “Church” which, expanding with the adherence of new people, being both Jewish and pagan who believe in Christ, form the first Christianity. There is therefore no fragmentation between Jesus the “Jew” and Christianity, who live by the teachings of Jesus and profess him as God and Lord. In reality, Christianity was born and developed within Judaism, and only gradually did Christian communities break away from the Jewish communities to which they originally belonged, in this case excluding the Christian communities founded by St. Paul at the beginning which where independent of the Jewish communities. 

Historical value of the Gospels 

From the four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, we obtain a very clear picture. Yet what historical value do these Gospels have? For Prof. Pesce it is dealing with  deficient, contradictory, manipulated” texts, which the Church has chosen among many Gospels for “unclear” reasons, rejecting other Gospels as “apocryphal” and thus condemning them to oblivion. In reality, the “choice” of the four “canonical” Gospels occurred for very clear and obvious reasons. The first is that only within the four Gospels did the primitive Christian community recognise “apostolic tradition”, that is, what the Twelve taught, the disciples who were with Jesus during the entire time of his preaching, from Baptism to the Resurrection, who listened to his preaching and witnessed his miracles and his activity of expelling demons, as well as his disputes with the scribes. The second is that while the four canonical Gospels were all written in the first century (by approximation, Mark c. 65-70 A.D., Matthew and Luke c. 80-90 A.D., John c. 90-100 A.D.), the “apocryphal  Gospels are later and largely depending upon the canonical Gospels, that is, they do not bring any new elements to our knowledge of Jesus, that is except for the Gospel of Thomas. The third reason is that many so-called “apocryphal” Gospels express Gnostic tendencies, as it appears from some sayings of the Gospel of Thomas. For example, 114 states: “Simon Peter said to him [Jesus]: Let Mariham go out from among us, for women are not worthy of the life”. Jesus said: “Look, I will lead her that I may make her male, in order that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven”. The “gnostic” character of these sayings are quite evident. It is something that can be said about many other “sayings” of this Gospel. In fact, even when it literally agrees with the canonical Gospels, its animating principle is by and large Gnostic. 

Unquestionably the canonical Gospels pose many problems, they are written by different authors, each of whom has his own way of propounding Jesus and write bearing in mind the needs of the community for which they writing the Gospel; but it cannot be said that the four Gospels are  “incomplete, contradictory, manipulated” in the essential things. They give four portraits of Jesus that complement each other. In particular, the Gospel of John is very different from the others and sometimes deviates from them, but it is not in substantial contradiction with the other three, and there is no quantifiable reason to prefer it to the others. 

Finally, the skepticism with which the four Gospels are dealt with in the “Inchiesta su Gesù” [Inquiry into Jesus] are simply unwarranted. The elemental facts are displeasing – historically and exegetically unjustified – which in this thesis are objectively contained, whatever the intentions of the two authors, it is nothing more than a frontal attack on the Christian faith. 


(Please note: i. None of the opinions or comments expressed by Prof. Pesce or Mr. Augias in this article are shared by the Hermits of Saint Bruno and are entirely the opinions of the authors. ii. This is a Post Edited Machine Translation (PEMT) bridging the gap between Human Translation (HT) and Machine Translation (MT) methods of speed translation of a machine translation and the quality of native speaker human translation, as translators review, edit and improve machine-translated texts.  This article was originally in Italian and from “Un attacco alla fede cristiana” from “La Civiltà Cattolica”, booklet 3755, December 2nd,  2006. )