We are naturally curious about what Jesus' life
on earth was like. As the center of the Christian faith, Jesus
has had more impact on us than anyone in history, and yet it
seems we know little about the person who walked, talked, ate,
intermingled with the people and observed the customs and rituals
of first-century Palestine.
Recently there has been an effort by scholars
to sort out this "historical" Jesus from the Jesus Christ we
know through faith and tradition. Their task would have been
a great deal simpler had Jesus left a diary, or if archaeologists
could find a sign that said "Jesus slept here." As it is, they
(and we) are left to solve the mystery from a few clues.
We can look to sources aside from the Gospels
to recreate the times and places in which Jesus lived. The Torah,
for example, gives us an understanding of the laws that most
Jews observed. The writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish
historian, mentions a few names and events also recounted in
the Gospels. The topography of the land itself supports the
settings for the Gospel stories. The Dead Sea Scrolls show us
the diversity that existed in Judaism at the time. Finally,
archaeology provides us with material evidence of how people
lived. But the man himself does not emerge from these sources.
The Gospel of the Lord
The four Gospels are our primary source not only
for understanding Jesus the Christ, the center of our faith,
but also for the information we have about his life on earth.
The problem is that the Gospels were not written until at least
40 years after Jesus' death.
The Gospel writers saw Jesus' life from the overwhelming
perspective of the Resurrection. Although the Gospels do contain
historical facts, the evangelists wrote statements of faith,
not historical or even biographical documents. Such details
were not their main concern.
We see this, for example, in discrepancies among
the Gospel accounts on seemingly key facts such as when Jesus
was born. Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus was born
in Bethlehem while Herod was still alive (Matthew 2:1; Luke
1:5). We know from historical documents that Herod died in 4
B.C.E. Luke, however, also tells us that Jesus was born when
a census was conducted by Quirinius, governor of Syria (Luke
2:2). But historians have determined that this census was not
taken until 6 C.E.10 years after the death of Herod.
Matthew tells us that Herod ordered the slaughter
of the innocents, and that the holy family fled into Egypt (Matthew
2:16-18). No historical sources, however, say anything about
such a slaughter by Herod, though Josephus' description of his
character would suggest he was perfectly capable of such an
The evangelists wanted to communicate the message
that Jesus was the "Lord," the Son of God, the expected Messiah
of the Jews, the Word of God who had existed from the beginning.
To the evangelists, the details of his life on earth were significant
only insofar as they furthered this message.
Scholars agree that Jesus lived most of his life
in Nazareth in Galilee. Archaeological excavations done in the
1970's at Nazareth show that it was inhabited from about the
turn of the first century B.C.E. and occupied about an acre
of land. At the time of Jesus there would have been no more
than 120 people living there.
Mark's Gospel tells us that Jesus had brothers
and sisters (Mark 6:3). Catholic teaching holds that Mary was
and remained a virgin. The words we translate as "brother" and
"sister" could also have referred to more distant relatives
such as cousins. Saint Jerome (who lived in the fourth century)
says that they were cousins. The Greek Orthodox tradition suggests
that these were possibly children of Joseph by a former marriage.
Joseph and Jesus were carpenters (in Greek a
tekton, someone who worked with wood or stone). Scholars
say this may have involved making items such as furniture and
cabinets or doing heavy construction work.
Some scholars think that a carpenter from Nazareth
could have also been working in the nearby towns such as Sepphoris,
which was about two miles away.
Sepphoris had been destroyed by fire in 4 B.C.E.,
and was being rebuilt under the direction of Herod Antipas.
It had all of the amenities of a Greek town of the time, sumptuous
buildings, baths and a theater. Jesus' native language would
have been Aramaic, but he may also have known some Greek.
When Jesus was around 30 years old, he left Nazareth
and traveled down to the Jordan to where John was baptizing.
According to Luke's Gospel, Jesus and John the Baptist were
relatives (Luke 1:36-45). They may have met as children, although
the Gospels only tell us of their meeting at the time of Jesus'
baptism. According to John's Gospel, Jesus' baptism was a great
revelation for John the Baptist, who said he did not recognize
After being baptized, Jesus began his public ministry.
When Jesus returned to Nazareth he preached in the synagogue
and proclaimed to his people that he fulfilled the prophecy
of Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:6-30). The Nazoreans thought he was crazy
and tried to throw him over a cliff. Jesus left and went to
According to Mark, even some of Jesus' relatives
thought that he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21).
At Capernaum Jesus called together disciples,
most of whom were fishermen. Fishing was the main industry in
Galilee. The fish were sold right off the boats; any that were
not sold were sent to Magdala (six miles downstream) to be smoked
or pickled, then packaged and exported to various parts of the
There were three main sects within religious Judaism
at this time: Sadducees, Essenes and Pharisees. All three groups
accepted the Torah or Book of Laws, but each had different interpretations
of the Law.
The Sadducees, who were the priestly aristocracy,
put particular emphasis on Temple worship and sacrifice. They
did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and felt that
God gave out all rewards in this life.
The Essenes disapproved of Temple worship. They
no longer offered sacrifice but used ritual bathing as a way
to be cleansed of sins. They had a few monastic centers, the
most famous of which is Qumran. The Essene community there produced
the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The third group was made up of Pharisees (the
word means "separate ones"). They were strict observers of the
written laws and surrounded these laws with numerous oral laws
in order to safeguard them. They were also trying to adapt the
Law to their own times. Sometimes some of them got too rigid.
But some, even most, were good religious people.
Jesus does not seem to have belonged to any of
these sects, though he held some beliefs in common with both
the Pharisees and the Essenes.
He often had his own interpretation of the Torah,
as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 57) demonstrates.
Jesus observed the Law, but he had a deep insight into its true
spirit and was able to see when the Law must give way to a higher
The legal system in Jesus' day was so complicated
that ordinary people often did not know what was expected of
them. There were clean and unclean foods. Women were ritually
unclean at the time of their menstrual periods. Tax collectors
and prostitutes were unclean. Contact with a dead body (even
inadvertently) rendered a person unclean. Illness made people
Jesus' mission was to free and to liberate, and
he was more concerned with healing people than worried about
becoming ritually unclean by associating with them.
The Kingdom of God
The focus of Jesus' preaching was the kingdom
or reign of God. Many believed that the kingdom of God was near
and was making its presence felt. For many people, this meant
that Israel would again return to its position of autonomy and
The Essenes saw the arrival of God's kingdom as
the forces of light overcoming the forces of darkness. We find
some of this imagery in John's Gospel (for example, John 1:5).
Many believed that astronomical events would mark God's breaking
into history to change things.
Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God had arrived,
but that it was not a political kingdom (see John 18:36). He
also announced that the kingdom was available to everyone, not
only the Jews.
Jesus spent time in gentile territory, and some
scholars think that it was his willingness to include gentiles
in his message of salvation was one of the things that upset
the Jewish authorities. Ultimately, though, the charge that
led to his death was that of blasphemy.
Jesus also seems to have gone beyond the attitudes
of his time and culture in his relationship with women. All
of the Gospel accounts show Jesus at ease in the company of
Luke tells us of several women among Jesus' followers
who supported his mission out of their own pockets (Luke 8:1-3).
He was gentle with the woman with the "bad reputation" who anointed
him in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) and also
with the woman taken in adultery (John 8:2-11). He spoke with
both the Samaritan woman at the well and Martha of his fulfillment
of the Messianic prophecies (John 4:4-37; 11:17-27). He let
Mary the sister of Lazarus sit at his feet, the posture of a
disciple (Luke 10:38-42).
One Man's Death
T he Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)
tell us that Jesus went to Jerusalem from Galilee for only one
Passover celebration during his ministry. John's Gospel, however,
suggests three such trips.
Jerusalem is about 80 miles from Galilee and would
have been about a five-day journey. Some would have traveled
by donkey, but most pilgrims would have walked.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus rode on a donkey
into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-5; Mark 11:1-11). This may be simply
a recorded detail, or it may be the Gospel writers' way of indicating
who Jesus was. Matthew's Gospel refers readers to the Book of
Zechariah (9:9), which says that the king would arrive in his
kingdom riding on a donkey.
Jesus did several things in Jerusalem that would
have angered the civil and religious authorities, among them
driving the money changers out of the Temple precincts (Mark
11:15-19) and having people who were blind and lame, and thus
unclean, come to him in the Temple area (see Matthew 21:14).
The Gospels give conflicting accounts about the
celebration of the Passover. John says that Jesus was crucified
on the eve of the Passover when the lambs were being slaughtered
in the Temple (John 19:14). The Synoptic Gospels put the crucifixion
on the day of Passover.
Jesus' enemies could have put Jesus to death by
stoning. We know that this was a common, though not necessarily
legal, method of execution. Some of the religious leaders were
ready to stone the woman taken in adultery. Stephen, as we learn
in the Acts of the Apostles, was killed by stoning. But only
the Romans could put a man to death by crucifixion.
The death of Jesus of Nazareth may have ended
the life of an obscure carpenter from a small town in Galilee.
But we believe that the resurrection that followed three days
later was only the beginning of a new life for Jesus the Christ
and his followers down through the ages.