Jesus Christ (c. 6/4 BCE - c. 30 CE), also called Jesus son of Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of Galilee or simply “Christ”, was a Jewish religious leader who became a central figure in Christianity, regarded by most Christian branches as God himself. He is also considered an important prophet in Muslim tradition and the precursor of Prophet Muhammad.
Christ was not originally Jesus’ name. It was customary among ancient Jews to have only one name and add either the father’s name or the name of their place of origin. This is why during his life, Jesus was called sometimes Jesus of Nazareth and other times Jesus son of Joseph, which is supported by Christian sources (Luke 4.22; John 1.45; 6.42; Acts 10.38). The word Christ is not a name but a title derived for the Greek word christos, a term analogous to the Hebrew expression meshiah, “The anointed one”. Many Jews hoped that the former glory of Israel would be restored by a newly anointed son of King David, and they used the Messiah title to refer to this restorer. Early Christian literature sometimes combined the name of Jesus and his title using them together as Jesus’ name: Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. The reason for this is that the early followers of Jesus’ teachings believed he was the Messiah.
The life of Jesus began in north and central Palestine, a region between the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in the east and the Eastern Mediterranean in the west. This region was under Roman control since the 1st century BCE, initially as a tributary kingdom. The Roman campaigns, coupled with internal revolts and the incursion of the Parthians, made the region very unstable and chaotic up until 37 BCE, when Herod the Great (c.73 BCE - 4 BCE) became king. The region gradually gained political stability and became prosperous. Although Jewish in religion, Herod was a vassal king who served the interests of the Roman Empire.
After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, the Romans intervened again in order to split up the Herodian kingdom between three of Herod the Great’s sons. Galilee in the north and Perea in the southeast were entrusted to Herod Antipas (c. 20 BCE - c. 39 CE), whose reign (4 BCE - 39 CE) covered the entire life of Jesus. Philip the Tetrarch was appointed ruler over northern Transjordania. Herod Archelaus was made ruler of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea, and he exercised his power with tyranny and brutality; some of these abuses are recorded in the gospel of Matthew (2.20-23). The combination of killings, revolts, and social turbulence in Archelaus’ realm was too much for the patience of Roman authorities: in 6 CE the Emperor Augustus deposed and exiled Archelaus, sending him to Gaul, and his domain became the Roman Province of Iudaea in 6 CE (sometime spelled Judea, not to be confused with Judea proper, the region between Samaria and Idumea). Thus, Iudaea was under direct Roman administration and the province was governed by rulers directly appointed by the Roman Emperor.
The Dates of Jesus
The birth of Jesus raises an interesting paradox in chronology. The Romans used a dating system in which the year of the mythical foundation of the city or Rome was its main reference point and they named that year 1 AUC, which stands for ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the city”. Many centuries after the life of Jesus, Dionysius Exiguus (c. 470 - c. 544 CE), a Greek Monk and theologian who lived in Rome, came to the conclusion that Jesus was born in 753 AUC, and this date became widely accepted. The old Roman dating system was gradually replaced by a new system in which the main reference point was the birth of Jesus. That year came to be known as 1 AD, Anno Domini “The year of our Lord”. The years before the birth of Jesus were named BC, “before Christ”. This means that, according to Dionysius Exiguus' calculations, the city of Rome was founded 753 years before the birth of Jesus. Instead of the BC/AD notation, modern scholarship has an alternative naming for the traditional dating: BCE “before the Common Era” and CE “Common Era”.
None of the gospels shows much interest in dating accurately the birth of Jesus, and there are no references to the Roman dating system, nor to any other dating systems used in the Bible. Matthew simply states that Jesus' birth occurred “in the days of Herod the king [Herod the Great]”. Today we know that the dates worked out by Dionysius Exiguus are not fully accurate. Herod reigned from 716 AUC (37 BCE) to 749 AUC (4 BCE). This makes it impossible for Jesus to have been born in 753 AUC (1 CE) and at the same time been born “in the days of Herod the King”, who died in 4 BCE. In addition to the reference about the time of Herod, Luke (3.1-23) says that Jesus was “about thirty years old” when he was baptized “in the fifteenth year of Tiberius”, which would be around 27 or 28 CE.
Luke (2.1-2) also links the birth of Jesus with a census for taxation purposes ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus and driven by Quirnius, the Syrian governor. Such an enrollment took place in 6 CE, when Judea was made the property of Augustus and the taxation system had to be restructured. The problem with this reference is that this enrollment did not affect the population of Galilee, where Joseph and Mary lived. Furthermore, if Jesus had been born around 6 CE, it would be inconsistent with Matthew placing Jesus' birth during the time of Herod the Great.
The exact year for Jesus' birth is not known for certain, but there is enough ground to believe that he could not have been born any later than 4 BCE. Moreover, though this is the latest he could have been born, it could well be an earlier date, even as early as 17 BCE according to some scholars.
Jesus in the Christian Sources
Like the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and many other great teachers of Antiquity, Jesus left no written records. To say that he never wrote anything is to contradict the gospel of John (8.7) where we read that Jesus wrote something in the sand with his finger, but after more than two millennia, we can safely assume that these lines, whatever they were, are long gone. Details about his life survived in early Christian oral tradition for many decades until the slow process of committing them to writing started.
The earliest Christian records mentioning the life of Jesus are the letters ascribed to Saint Paul, many of which are actually of uncertain authorship. Some of these letters date back to approximately 65 CE, maybe a few years earlier. The details in these letters do not offer details of the life of Jesus outside the Last Supper and his execution.
We also have the gospels. The word “gospel” means `good news' (from Old English) and refers to the accounts of the life of Jesus. Many different gospels have come down to us but only a group of four are accepted by Christian tradition to be inspired by God. This group is known as the “canonical gospels” and includes the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The remaining gospels are known as apocryphal or non-canonical gospels and are not considered to be divinely inspired. Three of the four canonical gospels are labelled as “synoptic gospels” (Matthew, Mark and Luke), because their content presents many similarities. John, however, presents a very different picture of events.
The earliest of the four canonical gospels is believed to be Mark, written probably around 65-70 CE. Its content is not arranged chronologically, but according to subjects such as miracle stories, parables, pronouncement stories, etc. The only segment arranged chronologically is the Passion narrative (14.1-16.8). The two later synoptic gospels are Matthew, written around 85-90 CE, and Luke, about 90-100 CE. It is widely believed that the authors of these two gospels used Mark as their main source. In addition to Mark, there is a hypothetical source of the teaching of Jesus used by the authors of Matthew and Luke which is known as the Q source (from the German word Quelle, “source”).
The material included in all four gospels developed in three different stages: (1) authentic facts and words of Jesus himself, (2) additional accounts transmitted for many decades in early Christian tradition and (3) the edition compiled by the authors which includes the shaping of oral sources according to their own views and interests. The material in the gospel of John belongs largely to stage 3. From the standpoint of history, it is very important to identify the material belonging to stage 1 in all canonical gospels, which would reflect to some extent factual data about Jesus.
Accounts related to the birth and upbringing of Jesus, such as the miraculous conception, have a late origin and belong to stages 2 and 3, clearly reflecting the theological interests of the editors of the gospels. In fact, the virgin birth is not mentioned in Mark, the first gospel, and it is only directly stated in Matthew (1.18-25). A passage in Luke (1.26-38) is often used to support the virgin birth but the passage is ambiguous; only the annunciation is directly portrayed. No other references in the New Testament mention this event. Similarly, the birth in Bethlehem may also have a late origin. This is recorded in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark or John and could be a story that developed due to the interest in giving Jesus' Davidic descent. Having another king like David was a persistent hope among Jews, and even the prophet Micah (5.2-4) claimed that such a ruler would be a shepherd king from Bethlehem.
Jesus was born towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE) and brought up in Nazareth, Galilee. He was named Jesus (Yeshu’a in Aramaic, Yehoshua or Joshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Roman) and was conceived between the engagement and marriage of his parents whose names were Mary (Miriam in Hebrew and Mariam in Aramaic) and Joseph (Yossef in Hebrew, Yosep in Aramaic). In Matthew 13.55 it is said that his father was a carpenter, and Mark 6.3 says that this was also Jesus’ profession. It was a common practice during that time that sons would follow their father’s occupation, so it would be safe to believe that Jesus was a carpenter. Although not certain, it is probable that Jesus' education included a detailed study of the Hebrew Scriptures, a very common practice among the devout poor in Israel.
His public ministry began after being baptized by John the Baptist. According to the gospel of Luke, this was when Jesus was about 30 years of age. According to Mark (11.27-33), Jesus saw John the Baptist as an authority and possibly a source of inspiration. It seems that he performed baptisms parallel to John the Baptist (John 3.22). After the arrest of John the Baptist (Mark 1.14), Jesus began a new kind of ministry, spreading the message of the kingdom of God approaching and stressing the importance of repentance by the people of Israel.
Jesus was heavily influenced by the prophet Isaiah, who considered the coming of the reign of God a central topic (Isa. 52.7). Many of Jesus' teachings have allusions to Isaiah, and he also quotes him on many occasions. Jesus is presented as an eschatological prophet announcing the definitive coming of God, its salvation, and the end of time.
Jesus gradually gained popularity and thousands of followers are mentioned in the gospels. He shared some attributes with the Pharisees and the Essenes, two of the Jewish sects at that time. Like the Pharisees, his teaching methods included the expression of thoughts about the human condition in the form of aphorisms and parables, and he also shared the belief in the genuine authority of Hebrew sacred scriptures. Unlike the Pharisaic teachers, Jesus believed that outward compliance with the law was not of utmost importance and that values such as the love for enemies were more important. Moreover, Jesus summed up his ethical views in the double command concerning love: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Mark 12.28-31; Matthew 22.35-40 and Luke 10.25-28). The Essenes had a very simple way of life, a pacifist spirit, common ownership of property, common meals, they practised exorcisms, and they stressed the love for each other, all practices seen in the ministry of Jesus.
His prophetic preaching (the coming of God’s kingly rule) and his wisdom teaching (the command of love) are never explicitly linked to one another. This gap has been subject to endless discussions and interpretations in many traditions. A possible interpretation is that only the coming of God’s kingdom makes it possible for people to love God in complete obedience and to love their neighbours, including enemies. This is, however, a matter of speculation.
At some point towards the end of his career, Jesus moved to Jerusalem, Judea, reaching the climax of his public life. Here he engaged in different disputes with his many adversaries. At the same time, some religious authorities were seeking to entrap him into self-incrimination by raising controversial topics, mostly of a theological nature. The gospels offer different reasons as to why the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) was interested in executing Jesus, but only John (11.47-53) seems convincing enough: Jesus was seen as a trouble-maker who threatened public harmony. A Roman intervention to restore order, thus breaking the fine balance between Jewish and Roman power, did not interest the Sanhedrin. An arresting party finally took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, where he was judged, found guilty of blasphemy, and condemned to death. However, the execution order had to be issued by a Roman authority; the Jewish court did not have such power at that time. Therefore, Jesus was brought to the procurator of Rome who ordered Jesus’ execution. Because Jesus never denied the charges, he should have been convicted and not executed, as the Roman law required in case of confession for such a penalty. On a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was finally crucified and killed, which was not a Jewish form of punishment but a common Roman practice.
Historical Non-Christian Sources
The earliest reference for the existence of Jesus outside Christian tradition is found in Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93 CE by Josephus (37-c.100 CE), a Roman Jewish scholar.
At that time lived Jesus, a holy man, if man he may be called, for he performed wonderful works, and taught men, and joyfully received the truth. And he was followed by many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Messiah. (Antiquities, 18.3)
Scholarship almost unanimously rejects this passage, which seems to be either an addition or an alteration of the original text. The reason for this is the doubts triggered by the high praise given to Jesus by a Jewish author who is mostly concerned throughout his work in pleasing both Romans and Jews who were in conflict with the early Christians at that time. It may be the case that this passage is genuine in part, where it refers to Jesus' teaching, but was later edited to promote the Messianic message. Either way, as it stands, the passage raises suspicion.
A letter of Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE) asking the Roman Emperor Trajan for advice on the treatment of Christians has also come down to us. This document is dated around 110 CE, and it is the earliest surviving mention of the Christian community in Pagan literature. Tacitus, about 115 CE, writes about the persecution of Christians in Rome during the time of Nero.
[...] a race of men detested for their evil practices, and commonly called Chrestiani. The name was derived from Chrestus, who, in the reign of Tiberius, suffered under Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea. By that event the sect of which he was the founder received a blow which for a time checked the growth of a dangerous superstition; but it revived soon after, and spread with recruited vigour not only in Judea [...] but even in the city of Rome [...] (Durant, 281)
Tacitus goes on, talking about the bloody punishment ordered by Nero and suffered by the Christians. This paragraph is part of the description of the incidents linked to the Great Fire of the city of Rome which took place on July 18th in 64 CE.
The Roman historian Suetonius (c.69-c.122 CE) mentions a persecution and banishment of Christians around 50 CE during the reign of Claudius Caesar. This account was written about the same time as Tacitus wrote his.
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome. (Suetonius, Claudius 25)
This is consistent with what we read in the Acts of the Apostles (18.2), where it says that during the time of Claudius a decree ordering that “the Jews should leave Rome” was issued.
There are no surviving historical accounts of Jesus contemporary to his life. Except for Suetonius and Josephus, the rest of the sources do not actually refer to Jesus, but rather to the Christian community. Even Suetonius does not refer to the name of Jesus directly, but to his title “Christ”. This suggests that the Christian community was already established in Rome some years before 50 CE; otherwise, it would not have merited the attention of these writers and certainly would not have been worthy of an imperial decree.
Jesus in Christianity
Most Christian branches believe that Jesus is the son of God and God himself. The Resurrection of Jesus is considered the very foundation of the Christian faith, and it is also considered vital for the salvation of humankind, that through Jesus' sacrifice there is the promise of eternal life.
In Christianity, it is believed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse, and that the Holy Spirit (one of the three persons in the Christian Holy Trinity) was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy. The virgin condition of Mary during her entire life is also held by many Christian traditions.
The miracle stories surrounding Jesus are also important in Christianity. These are supernatural events believed to be the result of the divine condition of Jesus. Luke (7.18-23) describes Jesus referring to his miracles of healing as proof of the fulfillment of the promises in the Hebrew Scriptures of benefits to the outcasts and those in need (Isa. 29.18-19; 35.5-6; 61.1). In the gospel of John, the miracle stories have a symbolic significance, such as Jesus raising Lazarus (11.25-26) from the dead, a symbol of the victory of Jesus over death.
Jesus in Islam
Jesus is also present in the Islamic tradition. In the Quran, Jesus' name is Isa Ibn Maryam (Isa “Jesus” and Ibn Maryam “son of Maryam or Mary"). He is a prophet and precursor of Muhammad, but he is not considered to be God or the son of God. Muslims share the idea of a virgin birth and the performance of miracles. His mission in the Quran is described as a guide to the children of Israel. The Quran says that people were made to believe that Jesus was crucified and killed, but this actually never happened.
And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger - they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so to them; and those who disagree concerning it are in doubt of it; they have no knowledge of it except pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. (Quran surah 4.157)
Instead of dying on the cross, the Quran says, God raised Jesus into the heavens: "But Allah toook him up to himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise" (Quran surah 4.158).
The Controversy of Jesus' Historicity
Late in the 18th century CE, the suggestion that Jesus did not even exist started to gain popularity in some academic circles. Several arguments were brought forth in order to support this claim, which included:
- The many contradictions between the gospels.
- The suspicious similarities between the story of Jesus and the story of many religious figures such as Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Krishna, Mithras and Osiris: a miracle birth, a death for the benefit of humankind, and a glorious resurrection.
- The lack of contemporary historical sources on the life of Jesus.
- The uncertain authorship of a number of early Christian documents, which many considered inauthentic.
The idea that some accounts of the life of Jesus were exaggerations had been circulating for a long time, but Jesus as a pure myth, a person who never actually existed, was a completely new concept at that time. This debate continued during the 19th century CE, and many works aiming to show that Jesus was a mythological figure were published. Further, it was at this time that the theory concerning the apostle Paul (later Saint Paul) as the creator of the Jesus myth gained currency among scholars, a theory still prevalent today and popularized by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis (first published in English in 1960 CE) and the later film of the book.
Analysing the early non-Christian sources, it seems clear that, by 50 CE, the Christian community was already significant enough to attract the attention of many Roman historians. If Jesus were actually a myth, this would imply that the legend of Christ was invented in one generation. If so, it is probable that, were the gospels pure fiction, some incidents described in them, such as Peter’s denial, the failure of Jesus in trying to work miracles in Galilee, his early insecurity about his mission, his moments of bitterness, and the fight between the disciples for high places in the Kingdom, would have been concealed by the authors.
If the same standards of authenticity applied to Jesus Christ were also applied to figures like Confucius, Hammurabi, Pythagoras, or Socrates, all these men would likewise be consigned to the status of legend. It would be hard to understand the origins of Buddhism without the Buddha, Islam without Mohammed, and Christianity without Jesus. The influence of charismatic leaders, their inspiring actions and appealing ideas, seem to be a crucial factor for the birth of significant religious or philosophical movements.
About the Author
- Suetonius - The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Claudius
- Anonymous, Encyclopedia Britannica Interactive Science Library Earth, Space, Humans (Publications Intl, 2010).
- Coogan, M. D. and Metzger, B. M, The Oxford Companion to the Bible edition by B. M. Metzger,M. D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, USA, 1993).
- Durant, W, Caesar and Christ (Simon & Schuster, 1980).
- Shaikh MD, S, The Glorious Quran Word-for-Word Translation to facilitate learning of Quranic Arabic... (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2007).
c. 73 BCE - 4 BCELife of Herod the Great, king of Judea.
23 BCE - c. 18 CELife of Herod Archelaus.
c. 20 BCE - c. 39 CELife of Herod Antipas.
c. 6 BCE - c. 30 CELife of Jesus Christ.
4 BCE - 6 CEReign of Herod Archelaus, ruler of Judea, Samaria and Idumea.
4 BCE - 34 CEReign of Philip the Tetrarch (sometimes named Herod Philip II), ruler of Transjordania.
4 BCE - 39 CEReign of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Perea.
26 CE - 36 CEJesus of Nazareth is crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate in Judea.
c. 65 CE - c. 100 CEThe tales of the life and work of Jesus (gospels) composed.
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