Jesus

(c. 4–c. 30)
   Founder of Christianity. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means ‘God is salvation’. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mashiach or massiach, which means ‘The anointed one’. Jesus Christ is, therefore, the name in the early Greek Scriptures for Joshua, the Messiah.
   There is no indication that Jesus thought of himself as the founder of a new faith. He lived and died as an observant Jew in the Roman-occupied Judea of the early first century AD. He was born into the family of Joseph, a humble Galilean carpenter, and his wife Miriam (Mary). According to Hebrew prophecy, the Messiah would be a descendant of David. This may explain why the Gospels of Matthew and Luke put the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, David’s native town, and construct genealogies tracing his descent from David. The belief in a virgin birth from Mary and the Holy Spirit occurs in these two Gospels. The Gospel of Mark (now regarded as the first to be written) and that of John (the last one) give no account of his birth.
   Nothing is given about the childhood and youth of Jesus, except for one story that at the age of twelve, during a Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his parents found him sitting in the Temple listening to the teachers and asking questions. Nazareth was at the time an obscure village lying in a bowl on the southern edge of the Galilee highlands, and there is no reference to it before the New Testament. But, as was pointed out by the Reverend George Adam Smith in his classic work (Historical Geography of the Holy Land; 1894), it looked out upon the Vale of Esdraelon, a scene rich in Old Testament history and current life. Through it ran the Via Maris, the great ancient highway from Egypt to Damascus and Babylon, along which passed Roman legions, merchant caravans and the throngs of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem.
   The Gospel story of Jesus’ ministry starts when he was about thirty, with his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, a Jewish revivalist connected with the ascetic sect of the Essenes. From then until his death, one to three years later, Jesus was an itinerant lay preacher ministering to the fishermen and other simple Jews round the Sea of Galilee, and gathering around him a group of disciples, twelve in number. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand, performed a series of miracles in healing the afflicted, raising the dead and feeding the hungry, and clothed his message in vivid parables. He does not appear to have referred to himself expressly as the Messiah, but to have regarded himself as a prophet, identified with the ‘Suffering Servant’ in the Book of Isaiah.
   By stirring up the poor against the wealth and privilege of the established order, he antagonized the priesthood and drew the attention of the Roman authorities. On a Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his disciples he was arrested, tried and condemned for seditious behaviour by the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, and executed by the usual Roman method, crucifixion. It was believed that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven, and the New Testament tells of his tomb being found empty and of his appearing to his followers in visions.
   These momentous events attracted so little notice at the time that there is no reference to the existence of Jesus in contemporary Jewish or Roman records. In his story The Procurator of Judea, the great French writer Anatole France brings out the fact that the founder of Christianity lived and died in complete obscurity in a remote corner of the Roman empire. The aging Pontius Pilate, living in retirement near Rome, accidentally meets a friend from the old Judean days and talks about the troubles he had as a colonial governor with the stiff-necked Jewish natives. The other casually mentions coming across a sect led by a young Jew called Jesus, from Nazareth. ‘He was crucified for some crime, I don’t quite know what. Pontius, do you remember anything about the man?’ Pontius probes his memory in silence for a few moments and murmurs, ‘Jesus? Jesus - of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.’
   For more than a decade after the death of Jesus, the small community of his followers remained exclusively Jewish. They debated whether to admit gentile adherents and if so, whether they should be converted to Judaism and circumcized. In AD 42 a meeting of their council in Jerusalem laid down that it would be enough for converts to accept the teachings of Jesus. From then on the sect expanded rapidly. It spread to other Roman areas, mainly through the missionary exertions of another Jew, Saul of Tarsus, known as PAUL from his Latin name. It was at this stage that Christianity emerged as a separate church. Soon after, between 70 and about 100, the traditions concerning its founder were set down in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
   There are many discrepancies in content and style between the four Gospels. The first three may, however, be grouped together and are known as the Synoptic Gospels, as they can be set out in parallel columns. The last one, that of John, is markedly different. It is likely that the sources for the Gospels were not only oral traditions but an earlier life of Jesus and a collection of his sayings which were available to the compilers of the Synoptic Gospels.
   The accounts in the Gospels of the trial and death of Jesus are at variance with each other. For instance, the Gospel of John discounts the story in the three earlier Gospels concerning an actual prior trial by the Jewish Sanhedrin in the house of the High Priest, Caiaphus. But all of them have in common the urge to hold the Jewish religious authorities responsible, and to depict Pilate as reluctantly yielding to Jewish pressures. In recent times, scholars have cast serious doubts on the historical validity of these Gospel accounts, whatever may be their theological aspect. They point out that the Gospels must be seen in their historical setting. They were written long after the events they describe, by pious men concerned with presenting a religious message in terms suitable to their times.
   The early Christian Church was dominated by two factors: its relations with the Jewish world, and its relations with the Roman world. Having failed to gain general Jewish recognition of Jesus as the crown and fulfilment of Judaism, the sect remained isolated and rejected until it broke away. Between the parent creed and its off-shoot there remained bitterness and tension. The Jews had become the antagonists, symbolized by the role attributed to them as the ‘Christ-killers’. In the centuries to come, they were to pay the price in blood and suffering, as hapless minorities in Christian Europe. The world of the Roman masters, on the other hand, had to be both placated and penetrated by the new faith. The Gospels were written in the period that saw the crushing of the Jewish rebellion, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the legions of Titus and the end of Jewish autonomy in their homeland. In these turbulent events, the Christians were a small minority group repressed by the Romans and lumped by them together with the Jews. It is understandable that the Christian account of the trial and death of Jesus should underplay the role of the Romans who had crucified him, and shift the guilt on to the Jews.
   The doctrinal parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity developed after Jesus. His own teaching, as preserved in the Gospels, was rooted in the Jewish religious and ethical concepts in which he was reared, and influenced by the sectarian currents of the period. The moral emphasis on love of God and one’s fellow men rather than on ritual is a development of the teachings of the great sage HILLEL, in the generation just before Jesus. Social concern for the common man, and the fight against power and privilege was the theme of the Pharisee struggle against the Sadducee establishment. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that the code of the Essene community to which they belonged is relevant to an understanding of the New Testament. The belief that the messianic age, the Kingdom of God, was at hand, was in the air at this time of Jewish stress. These beliefs and values were fused in the personality and message of the young Galilean, and dramatized by his poignant end.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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