BORN: c. 6 bce • Bthlehem, Judea
DIED: c. 30 ce • Jerusalem, Judea
Jesus Christ, originally known as Jesus of Nazareth, is the founder of Christianity and the central figure in the early writings of the religion. A Jewish healer, spiritual guide, and teacher who lived during the first century ce, Jesus is both a historical figure and a member of the Christian divine triumvirate (group of three, or Trinity). He is considered the Son of God, sent to Earth to atone, or make amends for, the sins of humanity. God and the Holy Spirit complete the Trinity.
"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
Born approximately 6 bce, Jesus died around the age of thirty-three after preaching for only three years. In that time, he gathered twelve followers, who were known as his disciples, and attracted the attention of much of the population in his home region of Palestine. In addition to preaching about universal love and everlasting life, Christians believe Jesus performed many miracles during his lifetime. Ultimately, he was crucified, or killed by being nailed to a cross, by the Romans, who occupied Palestine and were afraid of the power Jesus was gaining over the population. Three days after his death, Jesus was said to have risen from the dead and later he returned to heaven. His disciples spread the word about his life and miraculous resurrection. These teachings formed the core of the Christian religion, which would become the largest in the world. The life of Jesus was recorded in the Gospels ("good news"), or books, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament. The New Testament is the second half of the Bible, the primary sacred text of Christianity. The first half of the Bible is referred to by Christians as the Old Testament. To Jews (followers of Judaism), it is known as the Tanakh and may be referred to by non-Jews as the Hebrew Bible.
Despite his importance in Western religious history, Jesus is largely a mystery. The majority of his life is unrecorded, and much of the reality of his ministry and work became clouded by the myths that arose after his death. The main points of his life are detailed in the first four Gospels of the New Testament, but as these accounts concentrate more on his teachings than his personal activities, they reveal little about the actual man he was. Although thousands of authors have written about Jesus, broad areas of disagreement persist. Some focus on the miracles he supposedly performed, while others deny he possessed any supernatural powers and emphasize his message of love. Some call him a pacifist, or a person who believes disputes should be settled peacefully. Others see the attitude of a warrior in his words, such as in Matthew chapter 10, verse 34 (10:34): "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I am come not to send peace, but a sword." Indeed, in the words recorded in the Gospels, Jesus often seems to contradict himself, making the job of a biographer even more difficult.
Jesus lived during an era of political unrest. Palestine, which was supposedly the Promised Land that God had given to the children of Israel, had been invaded by the Greeks and then by the Romans. In 63 bce the Romans made certain areas of Palestine, such as Judea and Galilee, semi-independent kingdoms whose rulers answered to Rome. By the time Jesus was an adolescent, however, the entire region had become a province of Rome and had lost all its independence. The Jewish people of Palestine, however, often rebelled against Roman rule.
From the activities of shepherds recorded in the Gospels, Jesus would appear to have been born in the spring or summer. The birth date of December 25 is widely accepted to be a later invention by his followers, who wanted to blend his birthday with the much older festival of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, because that festival was already widely celebrated. The estimated year of his birth did, however, establish the Western calendar system. Dating began with ad 1, where ad stands for anno Domini, which is Latin for "in the year of the Lord." Dates before Jesus's birth were labeled BC, or "before Christ." These designations have since been widely replaced by the more academic terms ce, meaning "Common Era," and bce, meaning "Before the Common Era."
According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, to Mary, a virgin (someone who had never had sexual relations). She was engaged to a much older man, Joseph, who was supposedly related to David, the second king of Israel. Joseph and Mary had gone to Bethlehem because it was Joseph's native town and he needed to be present for a Roman census (count of the population). Upon arriving in the town, Joseph and Mary discovered that there were no rooms to be rented, so they stayed in the stable behind the inn. There, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Signs announced his arrival. Over Bethlehem, the Star of David rose, while an angel appeared to shepherds nearby to tell them that the savior had been born. Magi, or wise men, from the East were also guided to the stable by a star.
The Old Testament refers in many places to a messiah, a savior who would come to help the Jews in difficult times. At the time of Jesus's birth, the ruler of Judea was Herod Agrippa I (c. 10 bce–44 ce). Herod feared the coming of the messiah, thinking that this would cause unrest among the people he ruled. When word reached him that the savior had arrived, he ordered that all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem should be killed. When he heard of this order, Joseph left with Mary and the baby Jesus for Egypt, where they remained until Herod's death. Afterwards they returned to Palestine, to the town of Nazareth.
Joseph and Mary had a large family. In addition to Jesus, they had at least two daughters and four other sons. Some Christian scholars claim that these other children were cousins, or perhaps Joseph's children from another marriage, and that Mary remained a virgin all her life. As a youth Jesus studied the Jewish scriptures, or holy writings. Little else is known of his childhood, aside from one event. When he was twelve, he accompanied his parents to Jerusalem for Passover, an important weeklong Jewish festival held in the spring. This was perhaps the first time that Jesus had made such a long journey (excluding those made in his infancy) or that he had visited such a large city. After the celebration, Joseph and Mary left for home, only to discover that Jesus was not with them. Hurrying back to Jerusalem, they found their son in the temple, listening to and discussing religious matters with the Jewish scholars.
The Virgin Mary
Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, has become one of the major figures of the Christian Church. The Mary cult, a smaller group within Christianity that places special focus Mary, has been strong for two thousand years. Also known as Mariam or Miriam, Mary is "the most celebrated female religious figure in the Christian tradition," according to historian Elizabeth A. Johnson, writing in U.S. Catholic. Little is known about this famed woman, however. What stories have been preserved are found mostly in the Bible's Gospels, as are the events of the life of her son, Jesus.
Mary is believed to have been born around 22 bce, and the year of her death is unknown. Tradition holds that she was the child of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne and that she was conceived without Original Sin. (Original Sin refers to the sin of Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God's order and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden; it is the notion that all humans are born sinners.) Mary's birth without this Original Sin is called the Immaculate Conception. Because of her own Immaculate Conception, Mary was able to give birth to a pure Son of God, without sin, while also remaining a virgin. She is often referred to as the Virgin Mary or the Blessed Virgin. As a young woman Mary was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. During this time she was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her not to be afraid, for a son would be conceived by her who would be the Son of God. When Joseph discovered that his future wife was already pregnant, he decided to dissolve the engagement. He was then visited in his sleep by an angel and told to wed Mary.
Mary plays a major role in a number of events in the New Testament, including Jesus's birth; the time when Jesus went missing for several days at age twelve; the marriage in the town of Cana when Jesus turned water into wine; her son's Crucifixion, when she remained by his side; her visit to Christ's tomb after his Resurrection; and Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the twelve apostles. A tradition arose in the fifth century ce that Mary was taken, or assumed, directly into Heaven after her death, still a virgin. This event came to be celebrated on August 15 as the Assumption.
Catholic tradition holds that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. This had led to much speculation by scholars about not only the miraculous birth of Jesus but also those of his brothers and sisters. In 1854 the Roman Catholic Church made the Immaculate Conception an article of faith, while in 1950 Pope Pius XII announced that Mary's body had not decayed in her grave. Instead, he claimed, God had taken both her body and her soul directly to heaven.
Tradition holds that Joseph was a carpenter, and that Jesus adopted the same trade. Upon Joseph's death, Jesus assumed the role of supporting his family. Some accounts also hold that Jesus became a self-taught rabbi, or Jewish religious scholar and teacher, and devoted hours each day to study.
Becomes a healer and preacher
At about the age of thirty, Jesus encountered the prophet and preacher John the Baptist, who told people to repent for their sins and be baptized, or cleansed spiritually by immersion or dunking in water. Jesus was among the crowd who came to John at the Jordan River, and he was baptized. At this point, Jesus is said to have heard a voice from heaven telling him that he was the Son of God. He went into the desert, fasting (not eating) and meditating (thinking deeply) for forty days. During this period the devil is said to have tried to convince Jesus to worship him, but Jesus resisted.
Upon his return, he discovered that John the Baptist had been arrested, so he took up John's work, preaching repentance and the coming of the kingdom of God. Initially he preached near Nazareth, but he attracted few followers as people there had known him since he was a boy. He moved to different locations in Palestine and soon found followers among fishermen and common workers. In time he gathered twelve disciples, whom he personally educated. These disciples also claimed Jesus was the Messiah, and he was given the title of Christ, which came from the Greek word christos. Christos, like the word messiah, means "anointed one."
Jesus and his disciples established a headquarters in the town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, and from there went out to advocate love and forgiveness. Jesus taught by using parables, or stories with moral lessons. Accounts claim that he healed the sick, restored the ability to walk to the lame, and cured those with the dreaded skin disease of leprosy. Jesus had no intention of becoming the warrior messiah of Jewish tradition. He did not want to gather armies around him and defeat the Romans. Rather, he wanted to improve society by changing the ways individuals dealt with one another and establishing a community built on love and trust.
Before long, the radical preachings of Jesus began to anger the Romans who occupied Palestine. The Pharisees, a Jewish religious group that insisted on the strict observance of Jewish law, were also growingalarmed. They felt that Jesus was a threat to their position of power, especially as more and more of the populace looked to him as the Messiah. Around 30 ce Jesus entered Jerusalem for Passover week, with crowds laying palm fronds (leaves) before him and calling him the son of David and the Messiah. In the temple he overturned the tables of the merchants, who had largely overrun the holy place. During the following days he engaged in heated debate with Pharisees and other religious scholars. These activities and disagreements further angered the priests, who then sought to eliminate Jesus.
On Thursday night of Passover week, Jesus and his disciples had a final meal together, the reenactment of which would become one of the main sacraments, or religious rituals, of Christianity: Holy Communion, also known as Mass or the Eucharist. Following the meal, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Jesus's disciple, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus by leaking his whereabouts to his enemies. It was at Gethsemane that Jesus was arrested and taken to trial for blasphemy, or words and action that show irreverence to God. Jesus was sentenced to death and taken to the Roman authorities to have the sentence carried out. The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, attempted to satisfy the demands of a screaming crowd by ordering Jesus's crucifixion. The punishment was carried out on Friday, later called Good Friday in Christian tradition, on the hill of Golgotha, also known as Calvary. Among Jesus's last words were, as quoted in Luke 23:24, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
On the following Sunday, celebrated afterwards as Easter Sunday, when followers went to the tomb where Jesus was buried, they discovered the stone covering the entrance pushed aside and Jesus gone. His disciples supposedly shared a meal with him after he rose from the dead. Others, including his mother, Mary, were said to have seen him after this miraculous Resurrection. Forty days later, after telling his disciples to spread his teachings far and wide, Jesus was taken up to heaven.
Over time the life and death of Jesus took on a more deeply symbolic form. Though historians debate whether or not Jesus called himself the Son of God, his followers soon made this claim a fact of the budding religion of Christianity, named after Jesus Christ. In this context, he was seen as a sacrifice on the part of a loving God, the Father, who had offered up his only Son to redeem humanity's sins. The Crucifixion of Jesus and his subsequent Resurrection became major elements of Christian belief and reflect an idea that Jesus himself preached: that by believing in God, one could have life everlasting.
Jesus led a simple, humble life, which he preached others should do as well. He lived by his words, and his life became an example of what could be achieved by loving one's fellow humans and forgiving the wrongdoings of others. The Christian religion teaches that by having faith in Jesus Christ as both the Son of God and as a man who once walked among other men, one may reach personal salvation and have eternal life.
For More Information
Allison, Dale C., Jr. "Jesus." In Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, 4843-52.
Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York, NY: Atheneum, 1976.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words and Works of Jesus Christ: A Study of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.
Reumann, John. "Mary: An Overview." In Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, 5751-5.
Wilson, A. N. Jesus: A Life. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992.
George, Timothy. "The Blessed Evangelical Mary." Christianity Today (December 2003): 34-9.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary." U.S. Catholic (December 2003): 12-7.
"From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians." PBS Frontline. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/ (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Historical Jesus: Books, Articles and Reviews." New Testament Gateway. http://www.ntgateway.com/Jesus/biblio.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Lindemans, Micha F. "Jesus Christ." Encyclopedia Mythica. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/j/jesus_christ.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Maas, A. J. "Chronology of the Life of Jesus Christ." New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08377a.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).