Jesus of Nazareth
4 BC - 29 AD
Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ, was the central
personality and founder of the Christian faith.
likely that Jesus was born not later than 4 B.C., the year of
King Herod's death. Jesus' crucifixion was probably in A.D. 29
or 30. (The term Christ is actually a title, not a proper name;
it comes from the Greek Christos, meaning the anointed one; in
the Bible it is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word
Messiah.) Information about Jesus is in some ways scant, in
other ways plentiful. Although such ancient historians as
Tacitus and Suetonius mention him, as does the Jewish Talmud,
the only detailed information comes from the New Testament.
There are a few other ancient accounts of Jesus' life, called
Apocryphal Gospels because of their poor historical reliability;
and in 1946 a Gospel of Thomas, actually a collection of sayings
attributed to Jesus, was discovered in Upper Egypt. But none of
these sources adds significantly to the New Testament. The
letters of Paul are the earliest biblical records that tell
about Jesus. But the four Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and
John, although written later, used sources that in some cases go
back very close to the time of Jesus.
Jesus first came to general attention at the time of his
baptism, just prior to his public ministry. He was known to
those around him as a carpenter of Nazareth, a town in Galilee,
and as the son of Joseph (John 6:42). Matthew and Luke report
that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town near Jerusalem, famous
in Jewish history as the city of David. They further report that
he was miraculously born to the Virgin Mary, although they both
curiously trace his Davidic ancestry through Joseph, to whom
Mary was betrothed.
Little is known of Jesus' childhood and youth. But about the
year A.D. 28 or 29 his life interacted with the career of John
the Baptist, a stormy prophet-preacher who emerged from the
wilderness and called on the people to repent and be baptized. A
controversial character, he was soon jailed and killed by Herod
Antipas, the puppet ruler of Galilee under the Roman Empire.
Jesus heard John's preaching and joined the crowds for baptism
in the Jordan River. Following his baptism Jesus went into the
desert for prayer and meditation.
It is clear that Jesus had some consciousness of a divine
calling, and in the desert he thought through its meaning. The
Gospels report that he was tempted there by Satan as to what
kind of leader Jesus would choose to be - a miracle worker, a
benefactor who would bring people what they wanted, a king
wielding great power. Jesus accepted a harder and less popular
mission, that of the herald of the kingdom of God.
Returning from the desert, Jesus began preaching and teaching in
Galilee. His initial proclamation was similar to John's: "The
time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent,
and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15; Revised Standard
Version). This message was both frightening and hopeful. It told
people not to cling to the past, that God would overthrow old
institutions and ways of life for a wonderful new future. This
future would be especially welcomed by the poor, the powerless,
the peacemakers. It would be threatening to the rich, the
powerful, the cruel, and the unjust.
Jesus attracted 12 disciples to follow him. They were mainly
fishermen and common workers. Of the 12 it seems that Peter,
James, and John were closest to Jesus. Peter's home in
Capernaum, a city on the Sea of Galilee, became a headquarters
from which Jesus and the disciples moved out into the
countryside. Sometimes he talked to large crowds. Then he might
withdraw with the 12 to teach only them. Or he might go off by
himself for long periods of prayer. On one occasion he sent out
the disciples, two by two, to spread the message of God's
The records concerning Jesus report many miracles. Through the
years there have been great disagreements about these reports.
For centuries most people in civilizations influenced by the
Bible not only believed literally in the miracles but took them
as proofs that Jesus had a supernatural power. Then, in an age
of rationalism and skepticism, men often doubted the miracles
and denounced the reports as fraudulent.
Today, partly because of psychosomatic medicine and therapy,
people are more likely to believe in the possibilities of faith
healing. The Bible candidly reports that on some occasions, when
people had no faith, Jesus could do no mighty works. People were
especially skeptical in his home-town, where they had known him
as a boy (Mark 6:1-6). However, usually the Gospels report the
healings as signs of the power of God and His coming kingdom.
Teachings of Jesus
Jesus taught people in small groups or large gatherings; his
sayings are reported in friendly conversations or in arguments
with those who challenged him. At times he made a particularly
vivid comment in the midst of a dramatic incident.
The starting point of his message, as already noted, was the
announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God. Since this
kingdom was neither a geographical area nor a system of
government, it might be better to translate the phrase as "God's
The rest of Jesus' teaching followed from this message about the
reign of God. At times he taught in stories or parables that
described the kingdom or the behaviour of people who
acknowledged God's reign. Perhaps the most famous of his many
parables are those of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
At times he pronounced ethical commandments detailing the
demands upon men of a loving and righteous God. At times Jesus
taught his disciples to pray: the words that he gave them in the
Lord's Prayer are often used today.
Jesus' teaching was a subtle teaching, and often it was directed
to the needs of a particular person in a specific time and
place. Therefore almost any summary can be challenged by
statements of Jesus that point in an opposite direction. One way
to explore the dynamics of his teachings is to investigate some
of its paradoxes. Five are worth mentioning here.
First, Jesus combined an utter trust in God with a brute realism
about the world. On the one hand, he told men not to be anxious
about life's problems, because God knows their needs and will
look out for them. So if men trust God and seek His kingdom, God
will look out for the rest of their needs. Yet, on the other
hand, Jesus knew well that life can be tough and painful. He
asked men to give up families and fortunes, to accept
persecution out of faithfulness to him, thus promising them a
Second, Jesus taught both ethical rigor and forgiveness. He
demanded of men more than any other prophet or teacher had
asked. He criticized the sentimentalists who call him "Lord,
Lord" but do not obey him, and he told men that, if they are to
enter God's kingdom, their righteousness must exceed that of the
scribes and Pharisees, who made exceedingly conscientious
efforts to obey God's laws. He told men not to be angry or
contemptuous with others, not to lust after women, and not to
seek revenge but to love their enemies. Yet this same Jesus
understood human weakness. He was known as a friend of sinners
who warned men not to make judgments of others whom they
consider sinful. He forgave men their sins and told about a God
who seeks to save sinners.
Third, Jesus represented a kind of practicality that offends the
overly spiritual-minded; but he also espoused an expectation of
a future world (God's reign) that will make the attractions of
this world unimportant. As a worldly man, he wanted to relieve
hunger and sickness. He wanted no escape from responsibility
into worship. He taught that sometimes a man would better leave
church and go to undo the wrongs he has done.
But with this attention to the world was coupled the recognition
that men are foolish to seek security and happiness in wealth or
possessions. They would do better to give away their riches and
to accept persecution. Jesus promised - or warned - that God's
reign will reverse many of the values of this world.
Fourth, Jesus paradoxically combined love and peace with
conflict. His followers called him the Prince of Peace, because
he sought to reconcile men to God and each other. He summed up
all the commandments in two: love for God and love for men. He
refused to retaliate against those who had harmed him but urged
his followers to forgive endlessly - not simply seven times but
seventy times seven. Yet he was not, as some have called him,
"gentle Jesus, meek and mild" he attacked evil fearlessly, even
in the highest places.
Fifth, Jesus promised joy, freedom, and exuberant life; yet he
expected sacrifice and self-denial. He warned men not to follow
him unless they were ready to suffer. But he told people to
rejoice in the wonders of God's reign, to celebrate the abundant
life that he brings.
Views of His Contemporaries
To some people Jesus was a teacher or rabbi. The healing
ministry did not necessarily change that conception of him,
because other rabbis were known as healers. But Jesus was a
teacher of peculiar power, and he was sometimes thought to be a
Jesus certainly was a herald of the kingdom of God. But then a
question arises: was he simply talking about God and his reign,
or did he have some special relationship to that kingdom? Those
who heard Jesus were frequently perplexed. In some ways he was a
modest, even humble man. Instead of making claims for himself or
accepting admiration, he turned people's thoughts from himself
to God. But at other times he asked immense loyalty of his
disciples. And he astonished people by challenging time-honoured
authority - even the authority of the Bible - with his new
teachings. He was so audacious as to forgive sins, although men
said that only God could do that.
There was also the question whether it was possible that Jesus
was the Messiah. For generations some of the Jewish people had
hoped that God would send a king, an heir of the great King
David of past history, who would undo the oppression that the
Jews suffered, would re-establish the glorious old kingdom, and
would bring justice. Some expected even more - that a divine
saviour would come and inaugurate a radical transformation of
Various reports in the New Testament lead to various possible
conclusions. Today some scholars think that Jesus never claimed
to be the Messiah. Others feel that he clearly did. But there
was one occurrence that is especially interesting. Once, in the
neighbourhood of Caesarea Philippi, a city north of the Sea of
Galilee (Mark 8:27-30), Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do men
say that I am?" They gave various answers: John the Baptist,
Elijah, or another of the prophets. Then Jesus asked, "But who
do you say that I am?" And Peter answered, "You are the Christ
[Messiah]." Jesus' answer was curious, for "He charged them to
tell no one about him."
Why, if he accepted the designation, did he want it kept a
secret? One persuasive answer often given is that Jesus was
radically revising the traditional idea of the Messiah. If the
people thought he was the promised Messiah, they would demand
that he live up to their expectations. He had no intention of
becoming a conquering king who would overthrow Rome.
Jesus, who knew the Old Testament well, had read the Messianic
prophecies. He had also read the poems of the suffering servant
in Second Isaiah, the unknown prophet whose writings are now in
Isaiah, chapters 40-55. These tell of a servant of God and man,
someone despised and rejected, who would bear the cost of the
sins of others and bring healing to them. It may be that Jesus
combined in his own mind the roles of the Messiah and the
suffering servant. The undeniable fact is that his life and
character were of such a sort that they convinced his followers
he was the Messiah who, through his suffering love, could bring
men a new experience of forgiveness and new possibilities for
human and social life.
Soon after Peter's confession Jesus led his disciples to
Jerusalem in an atmosphere of gathering crisis. On the day now
known as Palm Sunday he entered the city, while his disciples
and the crowds hailed him as the Son of David, who came in the
name of the Lord. The next day Jesus went to the Temple and
drove out the money changers and those who sold pigeons for
sacrifices, accusing them of turning "a house of prayer" into a
"den of robbers." This act was a direct challenge to the small
group of priests who were in charge of the Temple, and they
clearly resented it. During the following days he entered into
controversies with the priests and authoritative teachers of
religion. Their anger led them to plot to get rid of him, but
they hesitated to do anything in the daytime, since many people
were gathered for the feast of Passover.
On Thursday night Jesus had a meal with his disciples. This meal
is now re-enacted by Christians in the Lord's Supper, the Mass,
or the Holy Communion. After the meal Jesus went to the Garden
of Gethsemane, where he prayed alone. His prayer shows that he
expected a conflict, that he still hoped that he might avoid
suffering, but that he expected to do God's will. There into the
garden one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, led the priests and
the temple soldiers, who seized Jesus.
That same night Jesus' captors took him to a trial before the
temple court, the Sanhedrin. Several evidences indicate that
this was an illegal trial, but the Sanhedrin declared that Jesus
was a blasphemer deserving death. Since at that time only the
Roman overlords could carry out a death sentence, the priests
took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Pilate apparently was reluctant to condemn Jesus, since it was
doubtful that Jesus had disobeyed any Roman laws. But as the
ruler of a conquered province, Pilate was suspicious of any mass
movements that might become rebellions. And he also preferred to
keep the religious leaders of the subjugated people as friendly
as possible. Jesus, as a radical intruder into the conventional
system, and believing that obedience to God sometimes required
defiance of human authority, represented a threat to both the
Sanhedrin and the Romans. Pilate thus ordered the crucifixion of
Jesus. Roman soldiers beat him, put a crown of thorns on his
head, and mocked him as a fraudulent king. Then they took him to
the hill Golgotha ("the Skull"), or Calvary, and killed him as
an insurrectionist. Pilate ordered a sign placed above his head:
"King of the Jews." Among the "seven last words," or sayings,
from the cross are two quotations from Jewish psalms, "My God,
my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Psalms 22:1) and "Into thy
hands I commit my spirit" (Psalms 31:5); and the especially
memorable "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do"
(Luke 23:34). That same day (now known as Good Friday) Jesus was
buried in a cavelike tomb.
On Sunday morning (now celebrated as Easter), the Gospels
report, Jesus rose from the dead and met his disciples. Others
immediately rejected the claim of the resurrection, and the
controversy has continued through the centuries.
The New Testament states very clearly that the risen Christ did
not appear to everybody. "God … made him manifest; not to all
the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who
ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts
10:40-41). Among those who saw Jesus were Cephas (Peter), the 12
disciples, "more than five hundred brethren at one time," James,
"all the apostles," and finally Paul. Other records tell of
appearances to Mary Magdalene and other women and of a variety
of meetings with the disciples both in the Jerusalem area and in
Galilee. The four Gospels all say that the tomb of Jesus was
empty on Easter morning, but Paul never mentions the empty tomb.
None of the records ever tells of an appearance of the risen
Christ to anyone who had not been a follower of Jesus or (like
Paul) had not been deeply disturbed by him.
The evidence is very clear that the followers of Jesus were
absolutely convinced of his resurrection. The experience of the
risen Jesus was so overwhelming that it turned their despair
into courage. Even though it might have been easier, and
certainly would have been safer, to regard Jesus as dead, the
disciples spread the conviction that he had risen, and they
persisted in telling their story at the cost of persecution and
death. Furthermore they were sure that their experiences of
Jesus were not private visions; rather, as in the statement
quoted above, they "ate and drank with him." The faith in the
resurrection (and later the ascension) of Jesus, despite
differences in interpretation and detail, is a major reason for
the rise and propagation of the Christian faith.
1st-century Jewish teacher and prophet in whom Christians have
traditionally seen the Messiah and whom they have characterized
as Son of God and as Word or Wisdom of God incarnate. Muslims
acknowledge him as a prophet, and Hindus as an avatar. He was
born just before the death of King Herod the Great (37 B.C.–4
B.C.) and was crucified after a brief public ministry during
Pontius Pilate's term as prefect of Judaea (A.D. 26–36).
Primary Sources of Information on Jesus
The primary sources for Jesus' life and teaching are the Gospels
of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (see articles on the individual
books, e.g., Matthew, Gospel according to), though these are not
biographies but theologically framed accounts of the ministry,
death, and resurrection of Jesus, i.e., of the basic subject
matter of Christian preaching and teaching. Other books of the
New Testament add few further details. Among non-Christian
writers of antiquity, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger
refer to Jesus, as does Josephus (Joseph ben Matthias) in at
least one passage. The 2d-century Gospel of Thomas sheds light
on the development of the tradition of Jesus' sayings.
Jesus' Life and Teaching
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain narratives of Jesus'
birth and infancy, which disagree in many points but concur in
asserting that he was the miraculously conceived son of Mary,
the wife of Joseph, and that he was born at Bethlehem in Judaea.
All four Gospels agree in dating his call to public ministry
from the time of his baptism at the hands of John “the
baptizer,” after which he took up the life of an itinerant
preacher, teacher, and healer, accompanied by a small band of
disciples (see apostle). The central theme of Jesus' teaching,
often conveyed in the form of a parable, was the near advent of
God's Reign or Kingdom, attested not merely by his words but by
the “wonders” or “signs” that he performed. The chronology of
this period in Jesus' life is entirely uncertain; what seems
clear is that his activities evoked skepticism and hostility in
high quarters, Roman as well as Jewish. After perhaps three
years in Galilee, he went to Jerusalem to observe Passover.
There he was received enthusiastically by the populace, but was
eventually arrested and, with the cooperation of the Jewish
authorities, executed under Roman law as a dangerous messianic
pretender. The Gospels give relatively detailed and lengthy
accounts of his last days, suggesting that the story of Jesus'
Passion was a central element in early Christian oral tradition.
They close with accounts of his empty tomb, discovered on the
“third day,” and of his later appearances to Mary and Mary
Magdalene and to the circle of his disciples as risen from the
The Christian calendar revolves around the life of Jesus;
important feasts include (in the Western Church) the
Annunciation (Mar. 25); Christmas (Dec. 25), with its
preparatory season of Advent; the Circumcision (Jan. 1); the
Epiphany (Jan. 6); Candlemas (Feb. 2); and the Transfiguration
(Aug. 6). The Easter cycle of movable feasts and fasts begins
with Lent, which ends in Holy Week; after Easter comes the
Ascension. Sunday, the Christian sabbath, is the weekly memorial
of Jesus' resurrection.
Jesus in Islamic Tradition
Jesus is highly regarded in Islamic tradition as born of the
Virgin Mary and as a prophet restating divine religion. His
miracles and institution of the Eucharist are attested in the
Qur'an. Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross.
Unable to accept that crucifixion could serve the purposes of
God, Islamic tradition holds that someone else died in his
place, while Jesus was taken by God to return at the end of time
to judge all people.
Modern Portrayals of Jesus
Starting with the advent of historical criticism in the late
18th cent. (see higher criticism), scholars increasingly
recognized that the Gospels were written from the point of view
of the original Christian believers, who were more likely than
moderns to accept supernatural occurrences and explanations.
Thus in the 19th cent. many attempts were made to reconstruct by
historical and critical methods a picture of Jesus that
corresponded more closely to modern ideas of reality. The most
famous of these lives of Jesus is that of Ernest Renan (1863).
Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, tr.
1910) is in large part a survey of this literature and its
shortcomings. Schweitzer's work brought an end to a series of
historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus and demonstrated
that the eschatological focus of the Gospels was not something
to be discarded in the attempt to encounter the historical
Many scholars in the first half of the 20th cent. argued that
the Gospels were narrative proclamations imbued with faith and
not in any sense objective presentations of the life and
teaching of Jesus. Two leading figures of this attitude were
Rudolf Bultmann and his student Ernst Käsemann; in the early
1950s they sought to link the historical Jesus and the Jesus
confessed by the church.
In the 1970s research into the historical Jesus took a new turn.
Geza Vermes published Jesus the Jew (1973), in which he
attempted to place Jesus squarely in the Jewish milieu of the
1st cent. The Jewishness of Jesus has increasingly been the
focus of Jewish and Christian scholarship. This approach takes a
much more optimistic view of the historicity of the Gospel
traditions. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has allowed
comparison of the Gospels with the brand of Judaism represented
in the scrolls. Still other contemporary scholars have sought to
portray Jesus as a charismatic teacher of subversive wisdom.
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This web page was last updated on:
19 December, 2008