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Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus Christ
4 BC - 29 AD
 


Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ, was the central personality and founder of the Christian faith.
 

 

It is 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.


Early Years

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.


Galilean Ministry

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 kingdom.


The Miracles

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 reign."

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 hard life.

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 prophet.

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 life.

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.


Passion Week

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.


The Resurrection

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.

 

 

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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 dead.

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 Jesus.

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