“Jesus Christ” is a name that combines “Jesus,” the Greek form of a Hebrew name meaning “Yahweh (the Lord) will save” (Joshua), with “Christ,” the Greek form of a Hebrew title meaning “chosen one” (Messiah). Early in the period following Jesus’ crucifixion, however, the name and the title blended together into a proper name, Jesus Christ. This person is the central figure of the New Testament. His teachings and the stories about the miracles he performed and how he was crucified by the Romans and raised to life by God became the basis of a new sect of Judaism. As this sect grew and expanded into non-Jewish (Gentile) lands, it eventually became a religion in its own right, Christianity.
No modern-style biography of Jesus can be written. Jesus is mentioned in non-biblical writings, but these references are scarce and the information they provide is meager. For instance, the Roman historian Tacitus mentions Jesus, but only in order to explain the name of the “Christians” who were being put to death by Nero. The biblical references, though extensive, are more like portraits painted by the individual writers than photographs intended to capture every detail. Just as Rembrandt and Picasso interpret the subjects of their portraits very differently, so Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide different presentations of Jesus. Nevertheless, these presentations are true depictions of who Jesus was for each of the four Gospel writers and the Christian communities where they first learned about Jesus. By seeing Jesus through these differing perspectives readers can gain a fuller and richer sense of the impact he had upon the early church.
Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) and as a teacher whose Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) has become the ethical backbone for Christians for almost twenty centuries. Mark stresses what Jesus did rather than what he taught. By showing that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected, the author of Mark challenged those who expected the Messiah to be a political leader who would liberate the Jews from Roman oppression. Luke takes great care to portray a compassionate Jesus who cares deeply for the poor and those in society who have been marginalized. John’s vision is of a glorified Jesus. His Jesus offers blessing and full life in the present as well as after death. The Gospels were written to give people more than a record of what Jesus said and did by presenting who Jesus was for their authors and by suggesting what that can mean for those who read or hear their accounts.
One factor contributing to these differing perspectives is the question of chronology. If we imagine all the stories of Jesus’ life as individual pearls that were gathered by the church, we can understand the Gospel writer Mark as the first person to string together these separate pearls into a necklace that represents his understanding of Jesus’ life. Even the dates of Jesus’ birth and death are difficult to determine with any certainty. We know from outside sources that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. And since Matthew states that Herod was still alive when Jesus was born (Matt 2:16), Jesus must have been born prior to that date, perhaps as early as 6 B.C. The date of Jesus’ death is also a matter of deduction. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal that would have been eaten on the fifteenth day of Nisan (March/April; see Matt 26:17-18; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7-8). But in John Jesus is crucified before the Passover meal (18:28; 19:14) on Nisan 14. Of the possible dates where either Nisan 14 or 15 falls on a Friday (A.D. 27, 29, 30, and 33), the most likely is A.D. 30.
This lack of specificity with regard to the dates of Jesus’ life, however, does not prevent us from discerning a basic outline of his life. The Gospels provide some basic information. Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1) to a young woman named Mary (Matt 1:18). He grew up in Nazareth (Luke 1:39), working as a carpenter (Mark 6:3). Following his baptism by John (Mark 1:9-11) and a period of testing in the desert (Luke 4:1-13), the Gospels relate his ministry, mostly in the largely Gentile region of Galilee. This ministry lasted between one and three years, during which time Jesus attracted many followers and appointed twelve of these to be key disciples (apostles). After describing his teaching and miracles, each of the Gospels concludes with an account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem where he was arrested, tried, and executed during the Passover Festival.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching is characterized by an authority that exceeded that of the prophets and was based on his close personal relationship with God. This brought him into frequent dispute with the religious leaders of the day, including the scribes, Sadducees, and the Pharisees. The disputes centered upon who had the authority to interpret and apply the Law of Moses, not the authority of the Law itself. The Jewish leaders’ authority based their claim on a complex body of oral interpretation and traditional application. In opposition to these claims, Jesus asserted his own authority, often with the words, “You know that our ancestors were told … But I tell you …” (see, for example, Matt 5:23). The Gospel writers go on to show that the religious authorities felt deeply threatened by the things Jesus taught and did.
Jesus often used parables—short, intensely realistic, stories using everyday images—to grip his audience and point out with vividness and wit the presence of God in their lives. Many of these parables were intended to explain the nature of the “kingdom of God/heaven,” an expression Jesus used when speaking about God’s power and authority in the world. This is clearly the main theme of Jesus’ teaching. The narratives speak of this divine rule in both present and future terms. Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Gospel writers show, has somehow brought the kingdom into existence (Matt 12:28; Mark 1:15) and Jesus assures his disciples that the kingdom of God is already theirs (Luke 6:20). The future aspect of the kingdom is evident in those passages that announce the final fulfillment of God’s reign (Mark 9:1; Luke 22:18). Jesus’ ethical teachings are intended to promote repentance, obedience to God’s will, commitment in spite of opposition, and a searching examination of one’s attitudes towards others, including towards one’s enemies and the poor and marginalized. The Law of Moses (Torah) is summarized as loving God with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self (Mark 12:29-31; see also Deut 6:4-5). The motivation for this kind of ethical behavior is to be found in gratitude for what God has already done rather than in the hope for a reward (Matt 18:25-35).
Jesus’ miracles, sometimes called “signs” or “wonders” in the Bible, can be divided into two categories: healings and nature miracles. Healing miracles are numerous in the Gospels and include miracles in which Jesus casts demons (evil spirits) out of people. The so-called “nature miracles” are those miracles in which Jesus demonstrates his power over creation and the forces of nature, such as when he is able to make food increase (Mark 6:30-44), walk on the water (Mark 6:45-52), or calm a storm (Mark 4:35-41). Although there are only a few nature miracles in the Gospels, their message is important. Neither category of miracle is used exclusively to prove Jesus’ divinity or superhuman power, and Jesus is shown as explicitly refusing to perform miracles of this kind (Mark 8:11-12). Instead, Jesus’ miracles were intended to show his compassion for those in need and to point to the power that comes from God (Matt 12:28). The wonder and astonishment of the crowds that frequently conclude these stories should be seen in this light.
Not surprisingly, each of the Gospel writers makes use of the miracles in different ways. One third of Mark consists of miracle stories (including stories about Jesus casting out demons) in which Jesus is presented as the one God chose to destroy of evil and the forces of chaos. Matthew is much more interested in the response the miracles elicit from the people who witness them, preferring to present Jesus as a teacher rather than a worker of miracles. Luke connects Jesus’ miracles with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38) and uses them to depict Jesus’ compassion for the sick. John uses seven miracles, called “signs,” as points of departure for long speeches by Jesus on who he is and the nature of his ministry (see, for example, John 4:43—6:21).
The last week of Jesus’ life is described in detail in all four Gospels, but here again, each writer presents the material in his own way to express his own understanding of who Jesus is. Consequently, a single, harmonized account is impossible to create without doing injustice to the individual authors and only a bare outline can be offered. Peter’s statement at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Christ is the turning point in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 8:27-29). From this point on, Jesus tries to explain to the disciples that his coming death is the fulfillment of his role as the servant of the Lord who must suffer humiliation and die (Isa 52:13—53:12) so that others might live. During his last meal with his closest disciples, Jesus speaks of the bread as his body soon to be broken for them and the wine as his blood about to be shed on their behalf (Mark 14:22-25). Jesus is betrayed by his disciple Judas, and after the meal, Jesus is arrested while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is tried by the Council of religious leaders (Sanhedrin) and by Roman authorities, and is sentenced to die on political charges (Mark 14:32—15:15). He is then crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem and his body is placed in a tomb (Mark 15:16-46). The Gospels goes on to tell how three days later his disciples discover Jesus’ tomb to be empty. Each Gospel then gives a slightly different account of how the risen Jesus appears to the disciples on several occasions, and how a short while later he ascends into heaven with a promise that he will return at the end of the world (Matt 26:16-20).
The New Testament letters for the most part do not concern themselves with recounting the events of Jesus’ life, but rather focus on the theological meaning of his life, death, and resurrection (rising to life). Some of the theological claims made in the letters include: Christ’s preexistence (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:6; Col 1:15-16); his being in the image and the form of God (Phil 2:6; Col 1:15); his role as the savior or redeemer of humankind (Eph 5:23; Phil 3:20-21; 1 John 4:14); and his role as creator (Col 1:16). He is called Lord (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11), and even God (John 1:1; 20:28; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13). Since Jesus left no written record, it is not possible to say with certainty what he understood his mission to be, or how he would have responded to the later claims made for him by these writers and by the early Church leaders. Such things remain a matter of faith. The Jesus who announced the arrival of God’s kingdom and who gave evidence of its arrival through his teaching and healing became, himself, the subject of the good news that the early Church felt compelled to share with the world.
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