The biographical sources of Jesus’ life are mainly the four gospels of the New Testament; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As well as other books such as the Gospel of Thomas, one of fifty-two texts included in the Gnostic Gospels. It has been estimated that all the books combined account for anywhere from six to forty days of Jesus’ life. He is estimated to have lived from about 6 BC to 31 AD.
The books of Matthew, Mark and Luke are similar in their content, though the fourth book, by John, is different in its approach. The book of Matthew was written primarily for a Jewish audience showing Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, an aristocratic, rightful and legitimate king born to a wealthy family in Bethlehem who descended from David and Solomon. According to Matthew’s story, upon his birth Jesus was visited by three kings bearing gifts and writes of Jesus as being a powerful and majestic sovereign.
The book of Mark, the shortest of gospels, portrayed Jesus as performing as many as eighteen miracles and being a servant, constantly serving others. The book of Luke was written for a Gentile audience. Luke was the only Gentile disciple and a Greek doctor, who portrayed Jesus’ family as poor carpenters who moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in the poverty of a manger. There he was visited by three shepherds. Luke portrayed Jesus as a meek, lamb-like saviour. While the most theological of the four books, the book of John, deals mostly with the actual nature and will of God, as revealed to people.
The focus of all these books was that Jesus was the Son of God, the Father and that they are addressed to the world at large. They also paid more attention to conversations and teaching than the earlier written books of the Torah (Old Testament). The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written over the course of two different time periods, with the first books appearing from about 66-74 AD, thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death and the others written from 132-135 AD, more than one hundred years after his death.
The Gnostic Gospels meanwhile were found in 1945 at Jabel al-Tarif, a mountain of honeycombed caves in Upper Egypt. Written around 50-100 AD, the fifty-two texts include the book, Gospel of Thomas, which suggested that Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus and that Mary Magdalene was indeed Jesus’ wife for he “loved her more than all his disciples.” The books also included, Book of Phillip, Testimony of Truth, Gospel to the Egyptians and the Apocryphon (secret) of John. Many of them contained the same sayings from the New Testament and the four gospels, but in different contexts, perhaps suggesting other dimensions of meaning. The Gnostic Gospels, as well as others attributed to Jesus’ followers, are called cryptic translations, with the originals written in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Many of the Gnostic gospels, though written about 1500 years ago, seem to be copies of even more ancient manuscripts of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Zoroastrians.
While history suggests that Jesus could also have been Jesus of Nazareth, a Zealot, much like many young men at the time, rebelling against Roman rule, persecution and oppression. The countryside at the time swarmed with gangs of disciples. Unemployed, they would sometimes enter the Roman policed cities and fight against the tyranny of the Roman puppets, the Judean Kings and their harsh control of the populace. At the time of Jesus, most all people hoped and desperately needed a saviour. And perhaps a Jesus of Nazareth, through doctrine written decades after the fact, could be transformed into a being the people still so desperately needed, a Jesus of Christ.
Jesus is vaguely mentioned in the writings of Roman historians, Tacitus, Suetonius and Josepus, as well as some anti-Christian Hebrew writings. But the historical Jesus we know very little about, though he was known to be literate, nothing was written down when he was alive, much like Socrates and Confucius and many other prophets up to this time, Jesus spoke to disciples who transmitted orally and in later in writing, the wisdom that was preached.
Jesus’ sayings, teachings and symbolic acts were seemingly ironic, in that the intended meaning of many of his words was often in direct contrast to their usual sense, much like the Bible in its entirety. It is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Thus we have no way of judging the accuracy of either form of the communication, especially considering the fact that after the Bible was put together at Nicaea in the 4th century, no one but a few could even read it. It would be more than a thousand years later that it was translated and printed and finally read by people outside the church- a mere five hundred years ago.
In Bethlehem, Judea, at the time of the winter solstice, when the three stars of the constellation Orion reached their ascent and lined up brightly to form its belt, Jesus was born as the first son of the virgin, Mary or Miriam, of the tribe of Judah and descendent of David; and wife of Joseph, a carpenter. A poor family making the best of hard times, left to their own devices with faith in their fate. Jesus would become a disciple of John the Baptist and charismatic reformer of spirituality.
Before his birth, a rumour had made its way across the land of the coming of a messiah. Driven somewhat by Judaism, the tale also became a dream for many as the reality of the time was of oppression, civic and social persecution and intermittent rebellion. Where only a few hundred years before, the Babylonians ravaged the lands and peoples of Judea, now it was the Roman Empire’s turn for supremacy of the Middle East.
The dream for a rightful king to appear and deliver the people to freedom brought much hope. King Herod, the king of Judea at the time, who was appointed by the Romans heard the rumours and announced the persecution of all innocent new born children. Joseph and his family, with many others, were forced to flee to Egypt and upon their return years later, moved to Nazareth. Jesus is believed to have followed his father’s trade and became a carpenter. At twelve he was known to sit in the square and endlessly talk, argue and discuss with the scribes who gathered there. Jesus accepted spiritual responsibility by becoming a student at the synagogue like every other Jewish boy. Although young he seemed to be already aware of his unique relationship with his spirituality. For the next 18 years, nothing is known of his life, until his baptism at the hands of his cousin, John the Baptist, a cousin to his mother, in Jordan. This rite gave Jesus the first divine intimation or hint of his life’s mission. John himself was known as a prophet of the one God and through visions was given the task of preparing the people for the way of the Lord. John preached far and wide about reaching salvation through the forgiveness of sins.
Judea at the time of King Herod’s reign was filled with cruelties and atrocities, for he was a man overcome by jealous fears with the backing of the mighty Roman Empire and the Jewish Sanhedrin, a high court of 70 men who met in the great Temple, in Jerusalem. The authorities in Rome allowed the Sanhedrin to pass any sentence under Jewish law except the death penalty. Jerusalem represented the central government and its large administrative cabinet was the centre for all business and trade in the region. It was also the religious capital. In Jesus’ day the population of Jerusalem was about 250,000 people, with most its people speaking Aramaic. There were many markets with shops, stalls and restaurants, but away from Jerusalem and beneath the covers of society, there was much infighting and feuding, with mutually destructive strife and rebellion.
Away from the big cities, the wealthy class of rulers and officials had bought up all the land and oppressed the poor. Family farms disappeared and were replaced with huge estates, with the people having to hire themselves out as farm labourers. Slums appeared first in the villages and then within towns and cities, with the bigger and better homes of the rich usually built on large estates on the outskirts of a town. Within each community, the poor suffered tremendous hardship and tyranny. Thus when prophets such as Jesus, cried out against all the injustice and inequality, the people listened and began to believe in the hope for a saviour to save them from the drudgery of their persecuted lives.
Around 6 AD, Judas of Galilee began a highly militant revolutionary movement called the Zealots. When Jesus began his own ministry years later, the Zealots had by then assumed a prominent role in Palestine affairs. Palestine had been split into two provinces, Judea and Galilee, with Judea under direct Roman rule. Heavy taxes became the norm with much torture and a climbing suicide rate. But to many, these Zealots were revered for their activities against the oppression of the Romans. Jesus was still a child during this time, but it is conjecture that this time covered the eighteen years of his life which has gone unrecorded. We have no way of knowing who or what his influences were growing up. We do know however that when Jesus reappeared in historical accounts, the situation in Judea had become critical.
The rebellion would escalate until 66 AD, when the whole of Judea rose in revolt against Rome, albeit futile. Within four years Rome defeated all the rebel forces that fought against her and occupied Jerusalem razed the city and sacked and plundered all the temples. The fortress at Masada would be the final nail in the coffin for the Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora of the Jewish people began. They scattered to countries far and wide, feeling in exile. While the blossoming new religion of Christianity arose and within only a few hundred years became the Roman Empire’s official religion.
When Jesus reappears he is being baptised by John and afterwards Jesus felt so full of the Holy Spirit he would spend forty days in the wilderness alone, wrestling with doubts and fears, but was successful arguing against numerous temptations, even from the devil himself. In one of these temptations, Jesus rejects the traditional Jewish role of the militant Messiah who was to raise the Israelites to world domination by the sword. Besides showing moral character, Jesus’ rejection of this temptation would have a dynamic effect, for it showed the conception of the Messiah in a new light and with a new power, not evident before.
Upon his return from the desert, Jesus gathered twelve disciples around him; Peter, Andrew, Thomas, James the Less, John, Jude, Matthew, Matthias, Bartholomew, Philip, James, and Simon, as well as his companion, probably his wife, Mary Magdalene. He encouraged them all to go out and preach that which he was to teach them; only the positive and pure contents of the Old Testament and that his teachings were for all men equally, no matter the race. They were to go out and tell the people that the kingdom of God was at hand. The goal would be to provide hope and create a believing community. He was a very charismatic individual and seemed to carry himself confidently often using human and earthly analogies to explain spiritual and eternal concepts and moral issues, teaching that man’s true battle lay within. He warned people against careless talk and blasphemy against their God and that all of God’s children were to correct one another, to pray for one another, and to forgive one another. This demanding focus on others was very radical for the time.
During one of their journeys across the land of Judea, they eventually made their way to Nazareth, where Jesus, who still considered himself a Jew, as did all the apostles, entered the synagogue. Many elders were in attendance, and as Jesus entered he was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah, which he immediately opened and told all who gathered that, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are down trodden and to proclaim the favourable year of the Lord.” Finishing, he handed back the book and sat down. At first, you probably could have heard a pin drop. All eyes were upon him, no doubt some mouths agape, for here was a man proclaiming he alone to be the prophet of their God. The silence was soon enough broken as they then began to argue against him in rage, a cacophony arose. But word began to spread of this man, Jesus.
He was once asked by a lawyer, “Which is the greatest commandment of all?”, he answered that there are two commandments on which all the laws and the prophets are based, and that is to love thy God with all your heart and soul and, secondly, to love thy neighbour as thyself. He undertook at least two other missionary journeys through Galilee, where he is said to have performed many miracles, including the miraculous feeding of the five thousand by blessing a scant number of loaves and fish. He spoke revolutionary words at the Sermon on the Mount, where he emphasised love, humility, meekness, charity and service to God.
This Sermon began when those who had gathered around him, some from as far away as Decapolis, Jerusalem, Palestine, Syria and Jordan, became many, and he began to speak of many things in detail as he stood above them on a hill. He spoke about ethical living, about not seeking revenge for injury, but forgiveness of wrongdoers, about going beyond the minimal requirements of law and courtesy, in order to show true generosity of spirit. He blessed the poor, those who mourned, the gentle, those who sought righteousness, the merciful, and the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who had been persecuted for the sake of righteousness in their lives. He told them he was not there to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfil them. That, whomever commits murder shall be liable, those angry with others for no reason shall be guilty, and those who called a fellow person good for nothing or a fool, shall be guilty; that you shall not commit adultery, nor make false vows, speak the truth even if it is simply a yes or no response that is only needed. Give when asked and do not turn away from someone who wants to borrow. That one should love thy neighbour as well as their enemies, and to pray for them. To not practise your righteousness before others simply for the sake of being noticed by them and when you give to the needy there is no reason to blow your own horn.
When praying, Jesus stressed the need to pray in private and not bring undue attention to one self, to “go into your inner room and when you have shut the door, pray to the Father in secret and the Father, who sees in secret will repay you. And when you pray, pray in this way – Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.
Jesus talked about not amassing material things or “treasures of the earth”, “for they decay and rust and thieves will break in and steal them”. Gather instead, the goodness of one’s heart. Not to worry or be anxious about life, one’s body, what one wears or what one eats and drinks. Who, he asked, can add even a single hour to his day by worrying. He spoke that one should not worry about tomorrow, “for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” And not to judge others, for you too could be judged. Ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will open for you. Do to others what you would have them do to you and to be leery of false prophets.
Jesus ended his Sermon on the Mount by saying that, for those who understood the messages he had spoke and who would go forth and practise such values and norms in their daily lives were wise and would be like those who build their homes on solid rock. While those who listened but have no intention of living in such a way were people who build their homes on sand.
The essence of the Sermon was trying to get people to believe in the things their god once held sacred and important, without the militancy that had become so much a part of it. With the New Testament not yet written, the majority of the populace followed both the written and oral traditions of the Torah and were ruled by a hateful, revengeful and jealous god. Jesus was speaking about the opposite.
Of course when the ruling Sanhedrin and the militant Pharisees heard about the Sermon they thought it to be rebellious with dangerous implications, especially in keeping the populace controlled. Though Jesus had only visited Jerusalem once or twice, the Sanhedrin already knew him as being a religious and political troublemaker who had gained a reputation for healing, for exorcism and for challenging the religious authorities. On an earlier visit to the temple in Jerusalem, people had gathered around Jesus, so he decided to sit and talk with them. The priests suddenly brought in a woman, saying to Jesus that she had been caught in the act of adultery and according to their laws should be stoned. Jesus ignored them at first then said, “He that is without sin among you, let them first cast a stone at her.” One by one the accusers left the temple. After they had gone Jesus asked the woman, “Where did they go, has no one condemned you?” “No” she answered. “Then neither do I condemn you”, Jesus declared, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Such actions would beget much resentment amongst the Jewish elders.
They were especially offended and insulted that Jesus appeared to possess an insight to reality and the fatherhood of God. They were also disgusted with the fact that he ate and drank with the castoffs of society and taught forgiveness, compassion, and humility. The idea that God was closer than they had been led to believe, disturbed them.
After the Sermon, Jesus and his disciples began to feel the pressure from the authorities and had to seek refuge in the Gentile territories of Tyre and Sidon. There Jesus secretly revealed that he was the promised Messiah and that their God is one who cares for his people in this life and prepares them for their next life in heaven. Jesus held five great priorities as the central roles in a Christian’s life and stressed that he would not ask anyone something he would not do himself. The priorities were: a life of Surrender to God; a life of Service; a life of Obedience; a life of Communion, where God’s laws and expectations are not just for the Jewish nation, but are for all of God’s people; and a life of Witness, to be courageous in their convictions and emphasising that personal commitment matters most, whatever the cost.
Then came a day where he gathered his closest disciples around him and told them that he must soon die and that they would not believe him. Perhaps reading the writing on the wall, Jesus realized his destiny and resigned himself to the likelihood that he was going to be wrongfully put to death. He calmly continued to be seemingly in control of every situation, while his disciples were perplexed and dismayed.
Jesus then made his way to Jerusalem, a week before or after the Festival of Passover Feast, which commemorated Moses leading the Hebrew tribes in their escape from enslavement in Egypt. It was held on the 15th day of Nisan (Hebrew calendar), represented by March and April in the Gregorian calendar. It was at this time that Jesus and his disciples sat down together, to break bread for the final time and talk, discuss, argue and whisper. Fifteen hundred years later an Italian, Leonardo Da Vinci would give us his depiction of this gathering in his painting, The Last Supper.
Later betrayed by Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, Jesus was arrested and deserted by his followers. His disciple Peter denied Jesus three times in court, and he was tried without proof by the Sanhedrin, for blasphemy, for claiming to be the son of God and condemned for practising sorcery and leading Israel astray. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate also questioned Jesus, not about blasphemy, but of treason for his claim of being the King of the Jews. Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world. Pilate found no fault with this and passed Jesus off to King Herod, who taunted Jesus and sent him back to Pilate.
This condemnation of Jesus took place at the time of Passover, where each year at this time, the people were allowed to decide freedom for a prisoner of their choice. Pilate asked the crowd if it should be Jesus, but it was an angry crowd and they shouted for the release instead, of the assassin Barabbas. Jesus refused to defend himself to Pilate or to the crowd, which was becoming angrier and more insistent. The earliest texts of the New Testament stated that Jesus was then handed over to a Roman guard for crucification. Later manuscripts had him being handed over to the Jews, “so that they might crucify him”. Pilate finally condemned Jesus to death on a Roman cross between two thieves, in public. At his end Jesus was at first suffering, crying out in despair, “My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken me”, soon though came the words of resignation, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and finally, near his end he whispered, “It is finished.”
He died and was buried. Three days after his death it is said that he arose, made several public appearances and then rose aloft and into space, where he would continue to provide leadership to his followers. It is believed that, as well as being murdered for perceived heresy against the laws of the time, the spiritual corruption of society and the oppressed way, in which people were treated, he also died for humanity’s sins.
Jesus’ death and resurrection is commemorated each year at Easter, the most important religious date, on many religions calendars. The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, established the date of Easter as being the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon (14th day of a lunar month), following the spring equinox, on or about March 21st, which varies the date of Easter between March 22nd and April 25th. Easter represents the day Jesus was resurrected, having died three days earlier on what is known as Good Friday. Besides Easter, the spring equinox has also been known for millennia, as the time of re-birth and/or awareness; the time when the seeds of the crops begin to sprout from the earth. The Roman calendar associated the Ides of March, a festival that celebrated the planet Mars, with celebration and military parades, to be the middle of the month of March 15th, the day Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, and the day the Christians celebrate the Passover. The spring equinox is also the first day of the astrological year and the first full day of the sign, Aries.
Even though Jesus’ ministry only lasted approximately three years, his disciples continued to spread his word of peace, love, compassion, purity, worship and service to God far and wide, and a few would soon write of his story and teachings. By doing so they would elevate a man, Jesus of Nazareth, into the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, represented by Jesus Christ, and upon this they would build his church.
Interestingly enough, considering our social ills of today and on through the millennia, one third of all the parables and one sixth of all the words recorded as being said by Jesus and what topics are addressed, the most often in all scripture relate to our treatment of the poor, the distribution of wealth, of resources, and the danger of wealth to our souls. And yet, most Christian societies today are associated with militarism, interest paid for the use of money, gross inequality and violent assault upon the environment.
The often used symbol for Christianity, a fish, is not from the Bible calling the Apostles, fishers of men; it is because the letters of the Greek word for fish, ichthus, stands for the Greek phrase, Iesous Christos Theou Uios Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Saviour). The symbol of the fish first appeared in Christian art from about 100 AD and was used as a symbol of Jesus and the newly baptised. As to the known “seven deadly sins” mentioned in Christianity, these were first compiled long after Jesus’ death, around the year 600 AD, by pope Gregory I, and are pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth.
After Jesus’ death, the continuing Roman persecutions only helped in strengthening the new belief among the people that he, now called Jesus Christ was the messiah, and that he had died for them. By the Fourth century, in Nicaea, the present day city of Iznik, Turkey, Christian theologians edited Platonic metaphysics and transcendences of spiritual and ideal characteristics into their theology and decided which books would make up the Bible. Soon after, Christianity became the Roman Catholic Church, and the official religion of the Roman Empire upon Emperor Constantine’s conversion.
Meanwhile the Gnostic gospels and hundreds of other documents were banned and denounced as blasphemy and heresy, with the writers of this material deemed as heretics. While in fact, a heretic is from the Greek word, gnosis, or knowledge; through observation, experience and insight.
As Christianity became an officially approved religion, possession of books became a criminal offense with all copies burned or destroyed. The Christian bishops, who were once victimized by the police, now commanded them. Penalties handed out for misbehaviour escalated and it was announced that there would be no salvation for anyone outside the church, while whoever argued with its teachings and principles was declared a heretic and expelled, or worse. The New Testament was translated into Latin, which hardly anyone could read and a few hundred years later the paranoia and cruel aberration escalated into an era of violent persecution, which today is known as the Inquisition.
The books that became the New Testament perceived the many Christian prophets as being individuals inspired by God, through the Holy Spirit to deliver a message about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. But one of the problems with Christianity, as well as with Islam, is that Jesus, along with Muhammad, were both misinterpreted as the final prophets, while in reality there were many who came later, from all different cultures, all over the world.
Photo by James Shepard