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Last Updated: Monday, 21 November 2005, 14:29 GMT
Searching for the historical Jesus
In a series of radio programmes, In the Footsteps of Jesus, the BBC's Edward Stourton brings to life the world in which Jesus lived. In this article, he explains why tracing the historical facts about Jesus is so important.

The journey to the site of Dr Andy Overman's excavations was every bit as picturesque as an archaeological pilgrimage should be.

Andy Overman, left, with Edward Stourton at Omrit
Andy Overman, left, believes he has found the site of Caesarea Philippi
We bounced up a rough earth track as far as the car would take us, and the occasional Israeli military jeep swept past in a cloud of dust on its way to police the front line with Syria.

The last couple of hundred metres were on foot and allowed us to soak up the spectacular scenery: the slopes of Mount Hermon rose ahead of us, the brown hills of Lebanon marched away to the north-west, and when we looked back towards the way we had come, the land fell away into the fertile plain of Galilee, chequer-boarded by its orchards and fields.

It was a fire in 1998 that gave Dr Overman his coup at Omrit; it cleared the scrub and he was able to identify the outline of a huge Roman-era temple.

He believes it was erected by King Herod to honour the Roman Emperor Augustus at the time when Augustus began to be viewed as a living god, and he has identified it as the site of Caesarea Philippi.

He is now engaged in an ambitious project to rebuild the temple; it will soon rise to its original 23 metres (75 feet) in height, once again dominating the surrounding landscape.

If Dr Overman is right about the location of his find, it could one day attract biblical scholars and Christian pilgrims in droves.

Caesarea Philippi is where Jesus asked his disciples that famous question: "Who do you think that I am?"

In the account of the incident in St Matthew's gospel, Peter replies: "You are the Messiah, the son of the living god," and it is one of the most important pieces of biblical evidence for Christian beliefs about Jesus's divine status.

And Dr Overman believes that the fact that the incident is reported to have happened near his temple to the God-Emperor Augustus is extremely significant. He sees it as a direct challenge to the idea the temple represented one "living god" throwing down the gauntlet to another.

'Fifth gospel'

It is an intriguing theory, and a vivid illustration of the way modern history and archaeology are illuminating the life of Jesus today.

The land where Jesus taught and lived has been memorably described as a "fifth gospel"; we are getting better at reading it than we have ever been, and in the course of making these programmes I was struck by the fact that far from losing Jesus as he recedes into the mists of history, we are in many ways getting closer to him.

Discoveries like Dr Overman's temple and the Dead Sea Scrolls can fill in the context we need for what the gospels tell us about what he said and what he did.

The Christian teaching of the Incarnation - the belief that God became man at a particular time in particular place - has made the search for the historical Jesus enormously important in the Christian tradition.

But in the course of researching this programme we came across an extraordinary cautionary tale which illustrates the wider case for ensuring that Jesus is firmly anchored in historical reality.

'Aryan' Jesus

In the late 19th and early 20th Century there was a theological movement in Germany which sought to expunge the reality of Jesus's Jewishness.

Detail from a religious banner depicting Jesus Christ, believed to have been painted by Renaissance master Raphael at the end of the 16th century
Nazi followers tried to strip Jesus of his Jewishness
A complex theory was developed - around the idea of significant population movements in Galilee from the 8th Century BC onwards - to make the case for an Aryan Jesus.

It was of course a complete fantasy, and with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that it was driven by prejudice rather than an objective desire for historical truth, but that did not make it any less dangerous.

In the 1920s, some pastors from what became known as the German Christian Movement were actively involved in the establishment of the Nazi party, and the idea of an Aryan Jesus was a theme on which Hitler himself used hold forth to his dinner guests.

So the search for the historical Jesus matters not least because it can stop him being used in that way. In the course of making these programmes we spoke to a wide and varied cast of witnesses - including practising Christians, observant Jews, agnostics and atheists, and there was widespread agreement on one point; he was, and remains, a potent historical force.

In the Footsteps of Jesus was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday, 21 November, 2005 at 2000 GMT, and continues at the same time every Monday until 12 December. You can also listen to the programmes online after broadcast within a limited period by visiting the Radio 4 Listen Again page.

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