Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish prophet and holy man whose life and teachings became the basis of the Christian religion. After his death by crucifixion in about 30 C.E., his followers had experiences that convinced them that he had been resurrected by God. They believed that although he had ascended to heaven, he would soon return as messiah (Greek: Christos, “anointed one”) to reign over a restored Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem. The movement they then founded spread rapidly and soon came to include non-Jews. Especially prominent in the Greco-Roman mission was the apostle Paul, whose reinterpretation of the new faith was especially influential. By the middle of the second century, the new movement, originally a Jewish sect, had achieved a distinct “Christian” identity, and it went on to become a world religion.
Although Jesus is mentioned by early second-century Roman historians (Tacitus, Suetonius, and others) and by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the best sources for our knowledge of his life and teachings are the four gospels of the New Testament. (The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus extant partially in Greek and completely in Coptic, may contain some early traditions.) Since the New Testament gospels were written to promote faith in the resurrected Christ, and reflect situations as they were recalled by disciples some decades after Jesus’ time, they must be analyzed critically for information concerning the historical Jesus. Unfortunately, there is no unanimity among scholars about exactly who the historical Jesus was and what he said and did, but ever since the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s seminal book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (2001; 1st German ed. 1906), Death of Jerome, his soul carried to heaven by angels. Prominent in the engraving are the lion who befriended him in legend and a cardinal’s hat, since later stories made Jerome a member of the College of Cardinals. (Library of Congress)
Most scholars (not all—for example, the “Jesus Seminar”) have interpreted Jesus’ teachings and activity against the background of first-century Jewish eschatology.
Jesus (Yeshu’a) was presumably born sometime before the death of King Herod the Great (a client of the Romans, d. 4 B.C.E.).He grew up in a pious Jewish home in Lower Galilee, the son of Mary (Miryam), the wife of a carpenter named Joseph (Yoseph).According to the New Testament, Mary was a virgin who conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit, so Joseph is not technically considered his father. Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters (Mark 6:3). As a youth he learned Joseph’s trade. Sometime around 28 C.E., he underwent a ritual “washing of repentance,” or baptism, in the Jordan River by the Jewish prophet John the Baptist and presumably became John’s disciple. John’s message warned of the coming divine judgment, and his ritual washing was intended as a sign of repentance in preparation for that final event. After John the Baptist’s arrest by Herod Antipas, Jesus returned to his home territory and began a mission of his own in the rural towns and villages of Galilee. Sources differ on the length of this mission (in Mark it is a few months, but in John it could be for up to three years).
Jesus’ message is summarized by the earliest gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). This message reflects an apocalyptic worldview, a dualistic conception of human history and destiny that contrasts “this age,” seen to be dominated by the forces of evil, with “the age to come,” which God would soon inaugurate, when sin, death, and the forces of evil would be brought to an end. Following upon a final judgment, the righteous elect would live with God eternally in a newly constituted world. Jesus’ characteristic designation for “the age to come” is the “kingdom” or (better translated) the “rule” of God.
Jews had for centuries worshipped God as their “Eternal King,” even during the time of the monarchy when the Judahite kings ruled in Jerusalem as God’s regent. Nevertheless, the experience of foreign (Roman) rule and widespread oppression of the powerless by the powerful brought pious Jews to pray for the full realization of God’s rule, as, for example, in the Aramaic Qaddish: “Magnified and hallowed be his great name in the world that he has created according to his good pleasure; may he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days and in the lives of the whole house of Israel, very soon and in a near time.” This ancient prayer is reflected in two of the petitions of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples (the Lord’s Prayer, Matt. 6:9–10). Jesus understood himself as a special messenger of God’s kingdom, announcing its nearness and challenging people to live according to its norms. In God’s kingdom, the norms of “this age” would be overturned, and the poor and oppressed would receive justice.
Jesus’ teachings and activity aroused the hostility of some of his contemporaries, notably the Pharisees, a party of pious Jews intent on following Torah (the Law) meticulously, and who enjoined purity regulations originally decreed for the temple priests. Jesus’ views were more lenient in terms of ritual purity, but they were more stringent in terms of moral requirements (for example, forbidding divorce). Jesus’ open table fellowship with traditional “sinners” (nonobservant Jews) and other deviants (such as tax collectors) was especially irritating to the Jewish authorities. In Jesus’ view, God rejoices more over repentant sinners than over people who think they do not need repentance. He saw himself as sent especially to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).
Although Jesus looked upon the “coming” of God’s kingdom as a future event, he also indicated in certain contexts that the kingdom was already present in his own actions and teachings. He is credited by all the gospels with performing miracles of healing, exemplifying the presence among those healed of God’s saving power. Jesus was also an exorcist. He looked upon his exorcisms as part of God’s final assault upon the kingdom of Satan and signs of the proleptic presence of God’s kingdom: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20 and context).
Who did Jesus think he was? His followers looked upon him as God’s promised messiah who would restore the Davidic kingdom to Israel. The resurrection was taken as a sign of God’s vindication of him as this messiah, but even before his death some of his followers looked upon him as the one who had been foretold. However, there are no authentic pronouncements of Jesus in which he claims to be the messiah.
Instead, the self-designation that occurs in many of his sayings is “the Son of Man.” “Son of man,” both in Hebrew and in Aramaic, means essentially “human being” (cf. Ps. 8:4). The prophet Ezekiel is repeatedly addressed by God as “son of man” (Ezek. 2:1, passim). In one of the visions in the book of Daniel, four kingdoms, represented as beasts, are brought to an end by the coming to God of “one like a son of man,” that is, a human being (Dan. 7:14). That passage in Daniel was interpreted by the earliest Christians as a reference to Messiah Jesus, who would come again to establish his kingdom. But Jesus spoke instead of the “coming” of God’s kingdom, and not of his own “coming” (cf. Mark 9:1, reinterpreted in Matt. 16:28). Jesus’ authentic “Son of Man” sayings have to do with his lifestyle (Luke 7:34; 9:58) and other aspects of his ministry, including his authority to heal (Mark 2:10), and (possibly) his role as God’s servant (Mark 10:45). He probably also expected to play a future role as witness for the defense before God’s bar of judgment (Luke 12:8, in contrast to Matt. 25:31 ff.). How many of the “Son of Man” sayings are authentic pronouncements of the historical Jesus is disputed in scholarship. However one decides that, it is clear that Jesus’ self-designation as “the Son of Man” is ambiguous, probably deliberately so. The Gospel of Mark has Jesus predict three times that “the Son of Man” must suffer and die, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 ff.).These sayings are usually taken as prophecies after the event, composed by Mark. Nevertheless, it is probable that Jesus did expect to die in the course of his ministry. Jesus was well aware of what had happened to John the Baptist (beheaded by Herod Antipas) and probably saw in this an indicator of what would happen to him (Matt. 17:12 ff.).When he was warned by some Pharisees that Herod wanted to kill him, he is reputed to have said that he would go about his business as usual, for it is in Jerusalem where they kill prophets (Luke 13:31–34). And to Jerusalem he went.
His last visit to Jerusalem was made with other Galileans on pilgrimage to observe the Passover festival. After his entry to the city, Jesus mounted a demonstration in the Temple against its money changers and merchants, thus incurring the wrath of the Temple priesthood. At night, on the eve of Passover, he was arrested by temple police and turned over to Pontius Pilate (Roman prefect of Judaea, 26–36 C.E.) with an allegation of insurrection. Pilate ordered him scourged and crucified, together with two other insurrectionists. Pilate’s contempt for his Jewish subjects, including Jesus, is illustrated by the mocking inscription that he ordered posted on Jesus’ cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
But that wasn’t the end of his story.
Birger A. Pearson in “Holy People of the World