Maybe! But also maybe not! Let’s dig into the differences. (They definitely are two distinct things.)
We’ll get the easier one out of the way first: Jesus was a first century Jewish apocalyptic preacher/prophet. Some will also include “religious leader,” but Christianity as a religious movement doesn’t really happen until after the crucifixion.
And now all of a sudden I realize that it’s going to be as difficult to explain Jesus as it is going to be to explain Christ.
If we take religion/theology entirely out of the picture (by which I mean, let’s set aside all the supernatural claims of/about Jesus), Jesus is a man born in Bethlehem, a city in the Kingdom of Judah. He is Jewish, both culturally and religiously. We believe he was born roughly around 4 BCE and not much is known of his life in the Canonical Gospels* (the ones that made it into the Bible) until he is baptized by John the Baptist, an Essene.
[* We have something called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text from the 2nd century CE. We also have something called the Syriac Infancy Gospel, which borrows a lot of its elements from Thomas’s Infancy Gospel. Stories you’ll read in the Infancy Gospel that don’t show up at all in the New Testament: Jesus bringing a flock of clay birds to life; Jesus raising a boy from the dead who had fallen from a roof to be a witness on Infant Jesus’s behalf, since suspicion had fallen on Jesus as the shover; Infant Jesus killing a man who scolds Jesus and his friends while fishing, only to have to bring the man back to life when the kids tattle to Jesus’s parents.]
Ugh. Wait. We now need to talk about the Essenes. I promise this all fits together, but I thought it was going to turn out differently than this.
The Essenes were a Jewish sect from around the 2nd century BCE up through the 1st century CE. They lived in communes dedicated to poverty, daily immersion, and asceticism. The Dead Sea Scrolls that you’ve maybe heard something about are attributed to the Essenes. Unless they weren’t. There are some scholars — Dr Rachel Elior, Dr Lawrence Schiffman, Moshe Goshen-Gottstein, Chaim Menachem Rabin, to name those I’m familiar with — who don’t believe the Essenes really existed; that they were instead cast-offs from the Zadokites; and that these Zadokites are the ones who wrote the documents collected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whether or not John the Baptist was an Essene is a little beside the point; it’s accepted that he existed, and that he did baptise Jesus, and that John, too, was an apocalyptic figure. John preached an end-times theology that included the practice of baptising for the cleansing away of sin.
So, again, we’re going to set the religious stuff aside — or, rather, whether or not the religious stuff is “true” — and just hope to agree to agree that (a) Jesus as a man (not a supernatural figure) existed, (b) he was baptised by John the Baptist, and (c) both were apocalyptic proclaimers who believed that they were living in the final moments before God’s judgment.
Our best sources for biographical information on Jesus as a person come to us from the gospels, though other ancient historians of the time mention him, too. As far as the writer of Mark is concerned, Jesus had no especially supernatural birth, and Mark doesn’t include a genealogy. For Mark, the story of Jesus begins with his baptism in the River Jordan. Mark can also be read as a gospel of adoptionism: Jesus did not become the son of God until he was adopted by God after the baptism* (Mk 1:9-11). Matthew and Luke both give us genealogies, and both have elements of what we call the Christmas Story: the Annunciation, the manger, the Virgin Birth, the star, the shepherds, the wise men. John…is doing his own thing and we’ll talk about him another time.
[* The Gospel of Matthew also has an element of adoptionism to it, where Matthew suggests that Jesus doesn’t become the Son of God until the resurrection*.]
[* The gospels don’t agree on many details. And for a lot of theologians, this is actually of some comfort. If all four gospels aligned cleanly, then we might think that there is some coaching going on. But the fact that there are discrepancies within the gospel narratives actually suggests realistic “testimony.” It’s often discussed in terms of “No one describes an auto* accident the same way.”]
[* There are bumper stickers that say, “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter,” and I challenge anyone who believes that, or has that sticker, to show me in the Bible anywhere where Jesus does any carpentry. And no, being nailed to a cross does not count as “doing carpentry” so much as it counts as “having carpentry done to you.]
What is true among all the gospels is that Jesus is referred to as The Christ. Or Jesus Christ, which makes it sound like Christ is a surname. But Jesus is a person, and Christ is a title that has been attributed to Jesus. (Is he the Christ? No! say the Jews. Yes! say the Christians. It probably doesn’t matter! says Mike Bevel.)
So, what is Christ?
Christ is the anglicized version of the Greek khristos (χριστός). And khristos is the Hellenized version of the Hebrew word māšîaḥ. Messianism as a concept originated in Judaism, and it essentially means either anointed or covered with oil. In Jewish eschatology, the final messiah — the Very Important One, who will bring about the Messianic Age — would be an anointed king from the line of David. (The term “messiah” has been used for others, by the way, even in the Bible. King David was considered a messiah. So was Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great. These minor messiahs — men anointed with oil in a ritual ceremony — were never considered to be the Avenging Messiah. This messiah, whom the Jews were waiting for around the time of Jesus and John the Baptist, would come both to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple and to lay low all of the Israelites’ enemies.)
Claims of Jesus’s messiahship start with John the Baptist. It’s likely Jesus had been either a follower, or at least a close adherent, of John. In Mark, our oldest gospel, we hear John say, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8) Matthew adds to Mark’s story: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” (Matt 3:13-15)
And it’s at this point that the schism within Judaism starts. There are Jews who do not believe any claims of Jesus’s Christ status, and there are those who do believe Jesus is the prophesied Christ. On either side of that dividing line, however, both sets of Jews believe in The Messiah; one side just picked Jesus as that avatar, and the other said, “We’ll see what comes around on the next dim sum cart.”
Jews had a lot of reasons to deny Jesus the title of Christ. While the gospels, and The Book of Acts, and even the letters of Paul, try to paint a picture of Jesus as Messiah (mostly by just calling him Jesus Christ or Son of God), the Hebrew Bible describes the final messiah as a king sent to do battle and liberate the Jews. In fact, the Jewish messiah has no salvific mission at all. Which is what made Jesus such an alien figure to his own people: there was a claim of messiahship, but it was from a lowly carpenter and itinerant street-preacher who had no power to overturn Rome, rebuild the Temple, or deliver the Jews to the Messianic Age. The messiah that these separatist Jews (and Gentiles) were championing came almost as the Still Small Voice mentioned in 1 Kings. He heals the unclean. He eats with sinners. He performs work on the Sabbath. There is nothing about Jesus as a warrior or an organizer or even a political figure (though he is a political victim) in the New Testament gospels. And there wasn’t at the time, and there isn’t now, a lot of agreement as to how many Hebrew Bible prophecies the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled. I mean, for one thing, immediately: THE MESSIAH WAS NOT SUPPOSED TO DIE*. This one did. He got better, of course, but he only hangs around for a little while longer before disappearing pretty much ever since. He appears on the odd piece of toast, or in a mildew stain on a ceiling, but Jesus incarnate isn’t walking amongst us. (Unless, like me, you subscribe to large segments of Gnosticism where the Christ part of Jesus exists in all of us; we’re all Jesus, or at least have the ability to be.)
[* He is also supposed to be named Immanuel, as the Book of Isaiah tells us: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Is 7:14). The Gospel of Matthew is the only other place that mentions Immanuel, but instead uses Emanuel*, in Matt 1:22-23: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”]
[* There’s a 1992 book called Out of the Blue by Patrick McManus and I don’t remember almost anything at all except there’s this delightful exchange among children in a preschool. One child asks for an “unraser.” A girl corrects him: “Eraser. E. My name is not Unlizabeth you know.”]
So: Christians believe that Jesus either became or was born the Christ. Jews believe the Christ hasn’t arrived yet. So, in a sense, Jesus and The Christ are not necessarily the same person, but also aren’t necessarily not, but it’s the way Christians worship, recognize, and understand the man from Nazareth.