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This article is about Jesus of Nazareth. For other uses, see Jesus (disambiguation).
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Jesus, also known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ, is the central figure of Christianity, most of whose followers worship him as the messiah, or Christ ("the Anointed One"), as the son of God, and as God incarnate, Immanuel. In Islam, he is regarded as a very important prophet.

The most commonly used sources regarding the life and teachings of Jesus are the four canonical gospel accounts from the New Testament. To what extent these sources are reliable is the major historiographical issue about Jesus which has occupied biblical critics for several centuries. A few ancient Jewish or pagan writers mention him (e.g. Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and possibly Suetonius), but their information is limited and second-hand. Nevertheless, the majority of scholars agree that Jesus did exist. [1]

The exact dates of Jesus' birth and death are not known. The Anno Domini system of reckoning years was originally based on setting year 1 as the first full year of Jesus' life; but more-recent estimates place his birth as early as 8 BC/BCE, and as late as 4 BC/BCE. Based on the mentioning of Pilate, his death is now estimated to have likely taken place between 26 AD/CE and 36 AD/CE.

Drawing primarily on the gospel accounts, most critical historians portray Jesus as (among other things) a Galilean preacher and healer often at odds with Jewish religious authorities, who was crucified outside of Jerusalem during the rule of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.

Beyond that, the gospels make various additional claims about Jesus, for instance that he was the messiah prophesied in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible); that he was God, and the "son of God" (formal Trinitarian language would arise later); that his mother Mary was a virgin; and that after his crucifixion he rose from the dead, then ascended into heaven. Numerous miracles and other supernatural events are attested. The precise nature of Jesus's teachings vary subtly as presented among the four gospels, which attribute to him moral exhortations (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount), parables, the Lord's Prayer, apocalyptic and mystical teachings, interpretations of Jewish law, and most crucially, the revelation of his own divine nature and identity.

For Christians, Jesus is a historical person who became the world's "savior"; the mediator between man and God. His life and teachings are celebrated by most Christians through the various parts of a church service, as well as through the cycle of holidays in the Christian liturgical calendar (such as Christmas and Easter).

For Muslims, Jesus is one of God's most beloved and important prophets, a bringer of a divine scripture, and also the Messiah, although they attach a different meaning to this than Christians; as they do not share the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus.


Religious perspectives

Main article: Religious perspectives on Jesus
Simon Ushakov's 1658 depiction of Saviour Not Made by Hands, the most popular iconography of Jesus in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Simon Ushakov's 1658 depiction of Saviour Not Made by Hands, the most popular iconography of Jesus in Eastern Orthodoxy.

While most secular sources tend to take a strong skeptical view of the Gospels and similar texts claiming information on Jesus's life and works, Jesus has an important role in the texts of the two largest world religions, Christianity and Islam. Most other religions, however, do not consider Jesus to have been a supernatural or holy being. Some of these religions, like Buddhism, do not take any official stance on Jesus' life, while others, such as those practicing Jesus's own religion, Judaism, reject claims of Jesus's divinity and, in his own time, regarded him as a false prophet, though many today do consider him a good moral teacher. Joseph Klausner, a prominent Israeli scholar, argued very strongly for an authentically Jewish Jesus.

Christians are those who believe in and follow what they believe to be the teachings of Jesus. However, Christianity quite naturally has a more specific and involved meaning, as most Christians hold similar beliefs regarding Jesus and his life that are largely rejected by non-Christians. Generally speaking, most Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, part of a trinity of three persons of God, and the Messiah, who came to earth to save mankind from sin and death through a sacrifice. Most believe Jesus lived a perfect life and that is why his death on a cross, called the crucifixion, counts as a sacrifice for all mankind. According to tradition the disobeying of God's command by the first man Adam caused all mankind would die, but because of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, all mankind may have eternal life who believe in Jesus. Most believe that after Jesus' death he rose from the grave on the third day and forty days after that ascended to Heaven. There are many differing views within Christian groups as to whether or not Jesus ever claimed divinity. The majority of Christian laypeople, theologians, and clergy hold that the Bible shows Jesus both as divine, and claiming divinity; most believe that Jesus' resurrection is proof that he is God. Others, however, who claim to be Christian, believe that Jesus never claimed divinity, and stated plainly that he was not equal with God.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains that Jesus is the very same as Jehovah or Yahweh of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible but is distinct from God the Father, that he is the Creator of the Universe, that he spent the interval between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection organizing a Mission in the Spirit World for the righteous spirits to teach the Gospel to those in darkness, that he visited the inhabitants of both the ancient and modern Americas after his Resurrection, that shortly after it was founded the true church disappeared for some centuries and so a restoration was necessitated, beginning with a theophany given to Joseph Smith in 1820.

The Ebionites believed that Jesus was a great Prophet who ordered an end to Animal Sacrifices and commanded strict Vegetarianism, and both practiced and taught Pacifism and the renunciation of material possessions. They were led by the brother of Jesus, known as Jacob or James, and rejected the Epistles of Paul.

In Islam, Jesus is known as Isa, and is one of God's highest-ranked and most-beloved prophets. Like Christian writings, the Qur'an holds that Jesus was born without a biological father by the will of God, that he could perform miracles, and that he will one day return to the world to rid it of evil. However, unlike Christians, Muslims do not consider Jesus to have been the son of God, and do not believe that he died on the cross; instead, the Qur'an states that his death was only an illusion to deceive his enemies, and that Jesus ascended bodily to heaven. Muslims believe he will return to the world in the flesh with Imam Mahdi to defeat the Dajjal (Antichrist-like figure, translated as "Deceiver") once the world has become filled with sin, deception and injustice, and then live out the rest of his natural life. Muslims also believe that Jesus received a gospel from God (called the Injeel) that corresponds to the Christian New Testament, but that it and the Old Testament have both changed over time as such that they no longer accurately represent God's original message to mankind. In Muslim traditions, Jesus lived a life of perfect nonviolence, without material possessions and abstaining totally from alcohol and from the flesh of animals. He showed kindness and respect to all animals, even to dogs and pigs, which shocked his contemporaries.

The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam believes that Jesus survived the crucifixion and later travelled to India, where he lived and died as a prophet under the name of Yuz Asaf.

Judaism rejects both the Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah and the Muslim belief that he was a prophet; Judaism states that no new prophets were created after the destruction of the First Temple, and still awaits the coming of the Messiah. Jewish belief is not completely incompatible with some of the historical teachings attested to Jesus in the Gospels, but cannot be reconciled with the confessions by early Christian adherents, especially Paul.

However, the theology of Messianic Judaism is basically identical to that of most of Christianity.

Hindu beliefs in Jesus vary from those who consider him to have been just a normal man, or even purely a fable, to those who believe that he was an avatar of god. A large number of Hindus consider Jesus to have been a wise guru or yogi, some even suggesting that he spent his "lost years" learning various Hindu beliefs in India. The Hindutva historian P.N. Oak has even claimed that Jesus was in fact Krishna, and that Christianity originated as a form of his worship. Mahatma Gandhi considered Jesus his teacher and inspiration for Nonviolent Resistance. Many in the Surat Shabd Yoga tradition regard Jesus as a Satguru.

Although Buddhism in general attributes no spiritual significance to Jesus, some Buddhists believe that Jesus may have been a Bodhisattva, one who has dedicated his or her future to the happiness of all beings. Some Buddhists also interpret Jesus through Zen Buddhism, sometimes basing their perspective on the Gospel of Thomas. Additionally, there are many Buddhists who are also members of other religions, such as Christianity, and thus may combine Christian doctrines with Buddhist philosophies.

The Bahá'í Faith considers Jesus to be one of many "Manifestations" (or prophets) of God, with both human and divine stations.

Some religions consider Jesus to be a false prophet. Mandaeanism regards Jesus as a deceiving prophet of the false Jewish god Adunay, and an opponent of the good prophet John the Baptist—whom they nonetheless believe to have baptized him. Some Satanists consider Jesus to have been the son or a follower of Satan, or Satan himself, but most do not hold any spiritual beliefs regarding Jesus.

The New Age movement entertains a wide variety of views on Jesus. with some representatives (such as A Course In Miracles) going so far as to trance-channel him. Many recognize him as a "great teacher" (or "Ascended Master") similar to Buddha, and teach that Christhood is something that all may attain. At the same time, many New Age teachings, such as reincarnation, appear to reflect a certain discomfort with traditional Christianity. Numerous New Age subgroups claim Jesus as a supporter, often incorporating contrasts with or protests against the Christian mainstream. Thus, for example, Theosophy and its offshoots have Jesus studying esotericism in the Himalayas or Egypt during his "lost years".

Life and teachings

Main articles: New Testament view on Jesus' life, Historical Jesus


Main article: Chronology of Jesus
Suggested years of Jesus'
birth and death based on
Gospel interpretations
c. 6 BC/BCE Birth (earliest)
c. 4 BC/BCE Herod's death
c. 6 AD/CE Birth (latest);
Quirinius census
c. 26/27 Pilate appointed
Judea governor
c. 27 Death (earliest)
c. 36 Death (latest)
c. 36/37 Pilate removed
from office

The most detailed accounts of Jesus' birth are contained in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. There is considerable debate about the details of Jesus' birth even among Christian scholars, and few scholars claim to know either the year or the date of his birth or of his death.

Based on the accounts in the Gospels of the shepherds' activities, the time of year depicted for Jesus' birth could be spring or summer. However, as early as 354, Roman Christians celebrated it following the December solstice in an attempt to replace the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. Before then, Jesus' birth was generally celebrated on January 6 as part of the feast of Theophany, also known as Epiphany, which commemorated not only Jesus' birth but also his baptism by John in the Jordan and possibly additional events in Jesus' life.

In the 248th year of the Diocletian Era (based on Diocletian's ascension to the Roman throne), Dionysius Exiguus attempted to pinpoint the number of years since Jesus' birth, arriving at a figure of 753 years after the founding of Rome. Dionysius then set Jesus' birth as being December 25 1 ACN (for "Ante Christum Natum", or "before the birth of Christ"), and assigned AD 1 to the following year—thereby establishing the system of numbering years from the birth of Jesus: Anno Domini (which translates as "in the year of the Lord"). This system made the then current year 532, and almost two centuries later it won acceptance and became the established calendar in Western civilization due to its championing by the Venerable Bede.

However, based on a lunar eclipse that Josephus reports shortly before the death of Herod the Great, the birth of Christ would have been some time before the year 4 BC/BCE. This estimate itself relies on the historicity of the story in the Gospel of Matthew involving Herod around the time of Jesus' birth. Having fewer sources and being further removed in time from the authors of the New Testament, details surrounding Jesus' birth are challenging to piece together, due in part to large gaps where we simply have no information about what goes where, and therefore establishing a reliable birth date is particularly difficult.

The exact date of Jesus' death is also unclear. The Gospel of John depicts the crucifixion just before the Passover festival on Friday 14 Nisan, called the Quartodeciman, whereas the synoptic gospels describe the Last Supper, immediately before Jesus' arrest, as the Passover meal on Friday 15 Nisan. Further, the Jews followed a lunisolar calendar with phases of the moon as dates, complicating calculations of any exact date in a solar calendar. According to John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew, allowing for the time of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate and the dates of the Passover in those years, his death can be placed most probably on April 7, 30 or April 3, 33.

Early life

Main articles: Nativity, Child Jesus
This stained glass window shows Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.
This stained glass window shows Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary, a virgin, via the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of Luke gives an account of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary to tell her that she was chosen to bear the son of God (Luke 1:26-28). This is called the Annunciation. Joseph, Mary's betrothed husband, appears only in stories of Jesus' childhood; this is generally taken to mean that he was dead by the time of Jesus' ministry. Two of the Gospels report visitors to the newborn Jesus. In Luke, Jesus' birth is attended by visits from shepherds who were told of the birth by angels. According to Matthew, Magi ("Wise Men") from the East were guided by a star to his location and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Major events in Jesus' life in the Gospels

Mark 6:3 (and analogous passages in Matthew and Luke) reports that Jesus was "Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon," and also states that Jesus had sisters. The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus and the Christian historian Eusebius (who wrote in the 4th century but quoted much earlier sources that are now lost) refer to James the Just as Jesus' brother (See Desposyni). However, Jerome argued that they were Jesus' cousins, which the Greek word for "brother" used in the Gospels would allow. This was based on the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition that Mary remained a perpetual virgin, thus having no biological children before or after Jesus. Luke's Gospel records that Mary was a relative of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). The Bible, however, does not reveal exactly how Mary and Elizabeth were related.

Jesus' childhood home is represented as Nazareth in Galilee. Only one incident between his infancy and his adult life is mentioned in the canonical Gospels (although New Testament apocrypha go into these details, some quite extensively). At the age of twelve, Jesus was left behind by his parents after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On being missed, he was found "instructing the scholars in the temple".

Later life

The Baptism of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 1449.
The Baptism of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 1449.

According to Christian belief, just after he was baptized by John the Baptist he began his public teaching; he is generally considered to have been about thirty years old at that time. Jesus used a variety of methods in his teaching, such as paradox, metaphor and parable. His teaching frequently centered on the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven. Some of his most famous teachings are in the Sermon on the Mount, which also contains the Beatitudes. His parables (or stories with a deep or metaphorical meaning) include the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son. Jesus had a number of disciples. His closest followers were twelve apostles. According to the New Testament, Jesus also performed various miracles in the course of his ministry, including healings, exorcisms, and raising Lazarus from the dead.

Jesus frequently put himself in opposition to the Jewish religious leaders including the opposing forces of Sadducees and Pharisees. His teaching castigated the Pharisees primarily for their legalism and hypocrisy, although he also had followers among the religious leaders (see Nicodemus). In his role as a social reformer, and with his followers holding the inflammatory view that he was the Jewish Messiah, Jesus threatened the status quo.

Jesus' preachings included the forgiveness of sin, life after death, and resurrection of the body. Jesus also preached the imminent end of the current era of history, or even the literal end of the world; in this sense he was an apocalyptic preacher. Some interpretations of the text, particularly amongst Protestants, suggest that Jesus opposed stringent interpretations of Jewish law, supporting the spirit more than the letter.

It is commonly thought that Jesus preached for a period of three years, but this is never mentioned explicitly in any of the Gospels, and some interpretations of the Synoptic Gospels suggest a span of only one year; to achieve consistency with the Gospel of John, one theory suggests that the last Gospel describes a timeline which depicts a ministry time period of approximately one year.

Arrest, trial and execution

Michelangelo's Pietà shows Mary holding the dead body of Jesus.
Michelangelo's Pietà shows Mary holding the dead body of Jesus.

Christian belief holds that Jesus came with his followers to Jerusalem during the Passover festival, and created a disturbance at the Temple by overturning the tables of the moneychangers there. He was subsequently arrested on the orders of the Sanhedrin and the High Priest, Joseph Caiaphas because he claimed to be the King of the Jews which the arresters thought was blasphemy. He was identified to the guards by one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot, who is portrayed as having betrayed Jesus by a kiss.

He was condemned for blasphemy by the Sanhedrin and was turned over to the Romans for execution. All four Gospel accounts mention that the charge noted on the tablet called the titulus crucis, attached by orders of Pilate atop the cross, included the term "King of the Jews", though Pilate is represented as having found nothing inherently seditious in Jesus' kingdom conception. See article Barabbas for more about the trial before Pilate. In art the titulus crucis is often written as INRI, the Latin acronym for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."

Following the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea obtained Pilate's permission to take down Jesus' body and lay it into his own new tomb. This was observed by Mary and other women, notably Mary Magdalene.

Resurrection and Ascension

Main articles: Resurrection of Jesus, Ascension

In accordance with the four canonical Gospel accounts Christians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. This article of faith is referred to in Christian terminology as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; and each year at Easter (on a Sunday) it is commemorated and celebrated by most groups who consider themselves Christians.

No one was a witness to the alleged resurrection. However, the women who had witnessed the entombment and the closure of the tomb with a great stone, found it empty when they arrived on the third day to anoint the body. The Synoptic Gospel accounts further state that an angel was waiting at the tomb to explain to them that Jesus had been resurrected, though the Gospel according to John makes no mention of this encounter. The sight of the same angel had apparently left the guards unconscious (cf. Matt 28:2–4) that according to Matthew 27:62–66 the high priests and Pharisees, with Pilate's permission, had posted in front of the tomb to prevent the body from being stolen by Jesus' disciples. Mark 16:9 says that Mary Magdalene was the first to whom Jesus appeared very early that morning. John 20:11–18 states that when Mary looked into the tomb, two angels asked her why she was crying; and as she turned round she initially failed to recognize Jesus—even by his voice—until he called her by her name. The Gospel accounts and the Acts of the Apostles tell of several appearances of Jesus to various people in various places over a period of forty days before he "ascended into heaven". Just hours after his resurrection he appeared to two travelers on the road to Emmaus. To his assembled disciples he showed himself on the evening after his resurrection, when Thomas was however absent, though he was present when Jesus repeated his visit to them a week later. Thereafter he went to Galilee and showed himself to several of his disciples by the lake and on the mountain; and they were present when he returned to Bethany and was lifted up and a cloud concealed him from their sight.

The resurrection of Jesus is almost universally denied by those who do not follow the Christian religion. Most Christians—even those who do not hold to the literal truth of everything in the canonical Gospel accounts—accept the New Testament presentation of the Resurrection as a historical account of an actual event central to their faith. Therefore, belief in the resurrection is one of the most distinctive elements of Christian faith; and defending the historicity of the resurrection is usually a central issue of Christian apologetics. However, some liberal Christians do not accept that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, or that he still lives bodily (e.g., John Shelby Spong, Tom Harpur).


Main articles: Relics of Jesus, Apostolic Succession

According to most Christian interpretations of the Bible, the theme of Jesus' preaching was that of apocalyptic repentance. During his public ministry Jesus extensively trained twelve Apostles to continue after his departure his leadership of the many who had begun to follow him mainly in the towns and villages throughout Galilee, Samaria, and the Decapolis. Most Christians who hold that Jesus' miracles were literally true, not allegory, think that the Apostles gained the power to perform healing for both Jews and Gentiles alike after they had been empowered by the Holy Spirit of Truth (to pneuma tēs alētheias, John 14:17, 26; Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, 2:4) that he had promised the Father would send them after his departure—a promise that according to Acts 2:4 was fulfilled at Pentecost, poignantly the Jewish feast that, in addition to other Scriptural events, commemorates also the giving of the Law to Moses. For Christians, the legacy Jesus left was one of sacrifice; they believe that Jesus was sent by God to die as a sacrifice in place of all humanity. Christians hold that this sacrifice had to take place because all humans sin (they claim God's penalty for sin is death and separation from God) so God sent his son to die in their place. People who aren`t Christians sometimes reject these claims despite support from the Bible. [2]

There are many items which are purported to be authentic relics of Jesus. The most famous of these are the Shroud of Turin, which is claimed to be the burial shroud used to wrap his body, the Sudarium of Oviedo, which is claimed to be the cloth which was used to cover his face, and the Holy Grail which is said to have been used to collect his blood during his crucifixion and possibly used at the Last Supper. Many modern Christians, however, do not accept any of these as true relics. Indeed, this skepticism has been around for centuries, with Erasmus joking that so much wood formed parts of the True Cross, that Jesus must have been crucified on a whole forest.


Main articles: Cultural and historical background of Jesus, Aramaic of Jesus
Desert hills in southern Judea, looking east from the town of Arad
Desert hills in southern Judea, looking east from the town of Arad

The world in which Jesus would have lived was volatile, marked by many cultural and political conflicts and tensions. Culturally, Jews had to grapple with the values and philosophy of Hellenism and the imperialism of Rome, together with the paradox that their Torah applied only to them, but revealed universal truths. This situation led to new interpretations of the Torah, influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism.

All of the land of Israel was a protectorate of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus' birth. It was directly ruled by the Idumaean Herod the Great who was appointed King of the Jews in Rome in 39 BC/BCE by Mark Antony and Caesar Augustus (earlier known as Octavian). In 6 AD/CE the Roman emperor Augustus deposed Herod's son Herod Archelaus. He combined Judea, Samaria, and Idumea into Iudaea Province which was placed under direct Roman administration and supervision by a Roman prefect who appointed a Jewish High Priest for Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. This general situation continued until 64 and the start of the Great Jewish Revolt. Galilee, where the Gospels claim Jesus grew up, remained under the jurisdiction of another of Herod's sons, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, from 4 BC/BCE to 39 AD/CE.

The town claimed as Jesus' childhood home, Nazareth, was probably a tiny hamlet of a few hundred inhabitants, according to archaeological findings in the area. It had no synagogue, nor any public buildings. No gold, silver or imported goods have been found in it by excavation.

According to Josephus, 1st-century Judaism consisted of several sects, the largest being the Sadducees, who were closely connected with the priesthood and the Temple, and the Pharisees, who were teachers and leaders of the synagogues. They resented Roman occupation, but, according to historian Shaye Cohen (1988), were in Jesus' time relatively apolitical. In addition, isolated in small communities from these main groups, by choice, sometimes even taking to remote desert caves in anticipation of the end times, lived the Essenes, whose theology and philosophy are believed by some scholars to have influenced Jesus and/or John the Baptist.

Many Jews hoped that the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king (or Messiah) of the line of King David—in their view, the last legitimate Jewish regime. Most people at that time believed that their history was governed by God, meaning that even the conquest of Judea by the Romans was a divine act that would ultimately serve God's purposes. Therefore, the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king only through divine intervention. Some, like John the Baptist in the first half of the century, and Yehoshua ben Ananias in the second half, claimed that a messianic age was at hand.

Josephus' Jewish Antiquities book 18 states there was a "fourth sect", in addition to Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes, which scholars associate with those he called Zealots. They were founded by Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee in the year 6 against Quirinius' tax reform and "agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord." (18.1.6) They believed that the kingdom should be restored immediately, even through violent human action, and advocated direct action against the Romans. Roman reaction against the Zealots eventually led to the destruction of Herod's Temple by Vespasian in August of 70, and the subsequent decline of the Zealots, Sadducees and Essenes.

Some scholars have asserted that, despite the depictions of him as antagonistic towards the Pharisees, Jesus was a member of that group. [3] See also: Pharisees and Christianity

Jesus' native language was most likely Aramaic; see Aramaic of Jesus. He may also have spoken other languages of the time, such as Hebrew, the Jewish liturgical language, and Greek, the administrative language.


Main articles: Historicity of Jesus, Historical Jesus, Jesus-Myth
This 11th-century Greek image of Jesus is one of many in which a sun cross halo is used. Such depictions are characteristic of Eastern Orthodox iconography.
This 11th-century Greek image of Jesus is one of many in which a sun cross halo is used. Such depictions are characteristic of Eastern Orthodox iconography.

Most modern scholars hold that the works describing Jesus were initially communicated by oral tradition, and were not committed to writing until several decades after Jesus' crucifixion. The earliest extant texts which refer to Jesus are Paul's letters, which are usually dated from the mid-1st century. Paul saw Jesus only in visions, but he claimed that they were divine revelations and hence authoritative (1 Galatians 11-12). The earliest extant texts describing Jesus in any detail were the four New Testament Gospels. These texts, being part of the Biblical canon, have received much more analysis and acceptance from Christian sources than other possible sources for information on Jesus.

However, many apocryphal texts have also surfaced detailing events in Jesus' life and teachings, chief among them the Gospel of Thomas, a "sayings gospel" or logia consisting primarily of phrases attributed to Jesus. Other New Testament apocrypha, generally considered less important, include the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Mary, the Infancy Gospels, the Gospel of Peter, the Unknown Berlin Gospel, the Naassene Fragment, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Egerton Gospel, the Oxyrhynchus Gospels and the Fayyum Fragment.

Some texts with even earlier historical or mythological information on Jesus are speculated to have existed prior to the Gospels, though none are extant. Based on the unusual similarities and differences (see synoptic problem) between the Synoptic GospelsMatthew, Mark and Luke, the first three canonical Gospels—many Biblical scholars have suggested that oral tradition and logia (such as the Gospel of Thomas and the theoretical Q document) probably played a strong role in initially passing down stories of Jesus, and may have inspired some of the Synoptic Gospels. Specifically, many scholars believe that the Q document and the Gospel of Mark were the two sources used for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; however, other theories, such as the older Augustinian hypothesis, continue to hold sway with some Biblical scholars. Another theoretical document is the Signs Gospel, believed to have been a source for the Gospel of John. These is little consensus concerning how and when any of these documents were circulated, if they were at all.

Andrei Rublev's idealized image of Christ the Redeemer (1409).
Andrei Rublev's idealized image of Christ the Redeemer (1409).

The ecumenical council meetings in the 4th century that discussed which works should and should not be included in the canon were largely unconcerned with modern historical sensibilities, utilizing few techniques of objective textual analysis. Instead, their discussions generally tended to center upon theology, rather than upon historicity. However, noted scholars F.F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger and others argue that some historical details were taken into consideration regarding New Testament canon. It may be surmised that the early church leaders took for granted that historicity was not an issue to be debated, any more than debating the historicity of the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution would be major issues today. [4][5][6] In addition, Bible scholar Bruce Metzger wrote regarding the formation of the canonical New Testament:

"Although the fringes of the emerging canon remained unsettled for generations, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained among the very diverse and scattered congregations of believers not only throughout the Mediterranean world, but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia." [7]

As a result of the many-decade time gap between the writing of the Gospels and the events they describe, as well as the seemingly heavy pro-Jesus slant of these and other early accounts of Jesus' life, the accuracy of all early texts claiming the existence of Jesus or details of Jesus' life have been disputed by various parties. However, several Biblical historians have responded to claims of the unreliability of the Gospel accounts by pointing out that historical documentation is often biased and second-hand, and frequently dates from several decades after the events described - after all, many of our eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust were conveyed by survivors several decades after the fact, but no reputable historian would dismiss them merely on that account.

Even among those who believe that Jesus existed, however, there are still numerous divisions over the historical accuracy of the canonical Gospels. Some say that the Gospel accounts are neither objective nor accurate, since they were written or compiled by his followers and seem to exclusively portray a positive, idealized view of Jesus. Those who have a naturalistic view of history do not believe in divine intervention or miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus mentioned by the Gospels. One method used to estimate the factual accuracy of stories in the gospels is what is known as the Criterion of Embarrassment, which holds that stories about events with embarrassing aspects (such as the denial of Jesus by Peter) would likely not have been included if not true.

On the other side of the coin, some scholars believe that Jesus has little or no historical basis. There are many similarities between stories about Jesus and contemporary myths of Pagan godmen such as Mithras, Apollo, Attis, Horus and Osiris-Dionysus, leading to conjectures that the Pagan myths were adopted by some authors of early accounts of Jesus to form a syncretism with Christianity. Some Christian authors, such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, believed that such myths were created by ancient Pagans with vague and imprecise knowledge of the Gospel. While these connections are disputed by many, it is nevertheless true that many elements of Jesus' story as told in the Gospels have parallels in Pagan mythology, where miracles such as virgin birth were not unknown.

Scholars such as A. N. Sherwin-White, FF Bruce, John Wenham, Gary Habermas and others argue for a high degree of historical reliability of the key New Testament events or the New Testament as a whole (see: Resurrection of Jesus for details).[8] [9][10][11] Prominent liberal scholar John A.T. Robinson argued for early dates of the entire New Testament and ascribed many of the key New Testament texts to their traditional authors. [12]

Names and titles

Main article: Names and titles of Jesus

Jesus is derived from the Koine Greek Ιησους (Iēsoûs) via Latin Iesus (a u-stem, see Jesu). The earliest uses of Iēsoûs are found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and the Septuagint, as a transliteration of the Hebrew name Yehoshua (יהושע—known in English as Joshua when transliterated directly from Hebrew), and also Yeshua (ישוע). Jesus' original name is not reported by contemporary or near-contemporary sources, but modern scholars have suggested that Jesus' name was the Aramaic ישׁוע / Yēšûaʿ (as in the Syriac New Testament) a shortened form of Yehoshua used in Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles), which was a fairly common name at the time. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, mentions no fewer than nineteen different people with this name, about half of them contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth. Other Aramaic forms of the name include Yeshu`, Ishu`, and Eshu`. His patronymic would have been, bar Yosef, for "son of Joseph".

Some scholars speculate that Jesus was also known as "Bar Abba" ("Son of the Father") because many times in the Gospels he addressed God as "Father". The Aramaic word for "father" (Abba) survives still untranslated in Mark 14:36. Such speculations are largely in connection with further theories concerning Barabbas.

The Arabic form of the name used by Christians, following Syriac, is Yasu`. Muslims, following Qur'anic usage, refer to him by the name `Isa (possibly cognate with the Hebrew name Esau).

Christ is not a name but a title, which comes from the Greek Χριστός (Christos) via Latin, meaning anointed with chrism. The Greek form is a liberal translation of Messiah from Hebrew mashiach (משיח) or Aramaic m'shikha (משיחא), a word which occurs often in the Hebrew Bible and typically refers to the "high priest" or "king". The word mashiach in Hebrew means anointed (a cognate in English is "massage," from the Arabic for "vigorous rubbing with aromatic oils"), because the Israelite kings were anointed with oil. The title does not imply, either in Greek or in Hebrew, a divine nature for the possessor of it. In fact, it would seem prima facie that an inherently divine being would not be in need of being anointed. The title Christ is also sometimes identified with the Greek chrestos, meaning "good", although the words are unrelated in terms of etymology, and Chrestus was often used as a pet name for slaves.

The Gospels record Jesus referring to himself as Son of Man, Son of God, and also stating: "I and the Father [God] are One" (John 10:30), "before Abraham was born, I am" (John 8:58), and similarly: "Now, Father, glorify me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world existed" (John 17:5).

Some scholars have argued that Son of Man was an expression that functioned as an indirect first person pronoun, and that Son of God was an expression that signified "a righteous person". Evidence for these positions is provided by similar use by persons other than Jesus at a similar time to the writing of the Gospels, such as Jewish priests and judges.

In the Gospels, Jesus has many other titles, including Prophet (a title that he applied to himself, unlike others), Lord, King of the Jews, and Rabboni. Together, the majority of Christians understand these titles as attesting to Jesus' divinity. Some historians argue that when used in other Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the time, these titles have other meanings, and therefore may have other meanings when used in the Gospels as well.

The title Jesus the Nazarene may be a reference to a place of origin called Nazareth, or to a Jewish sect called the Nazarenes. It is often translated Jesus of Nazareth to support the former hypothesis.

Raymond E. Brown, in his An Introduction to New Testament Christology, Appendix III, p.189, wrote: "[i]n three reasonably clear instances in the NT [Heb 1:8–9; Jn 1:1, Jn 20:28] and in five instances that have probability, Jesus is called God. The use of God for Jesus that is attested in the early 2nd-century [ Pliny the Younger Letter 10.96] was a continuation of a usage that had begun in NT times. There is no reason to be surprised at this. Jesus is Lord was evidently a popular confessional formula in NT times, and in this formula Christians gave Jesus the title kyrios [Greek for Lord] which was the Septuagint translation for YHWH. If Jesus could be given this title, why could he not be called God (theos), which the Septuagint often used to translate Elohim? The two Hebrew terms had become relatively interchangeable, and indeed YHWH was the more sacred term."

Ethnicity and physical characteristics

Main article: Race of Jesus
Hypothetical reconstruction of what Jesus may have looked like based on the skull of a 1st-century Palestinian Jew.
Hypothetical reconstruction of what Jesus may have looked like based on the skull of a 1st-century Palestinian Jew.
The Shroud of Turin depicts a person with longer facial features, but still Semitic in appearance.
The Shroud of Turin depicts a person with longer facial features, but still Semitic in appearance.

There are no descriptions of the physical appearance of the earthly Jesus in the Gospels, though a vision of the heavenly body of Jesus is described in the Book of Revelations: "His head and hairs white like wool, as white as snow; and His eyes as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace." (1:13-16). Most early theological debate about Jesus’s appearance was based on interpreting Messianic prophesies and on the assumption that his physical form arose from a miraculous virgin birth and so was determined by divine fiat rather than biological mechanisms. Following Isaiah 53:2 early theologians such as Justin Martyr insisted that he was physically undistinguished, with "no beauty that we should desire him." The anti-Christian author Celsus states that he was "short and ugly". In contrast, the later Church Fathers Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine of Hippo argued that Jesus must have been ideally beautiful in face and body.

By the early Middle ages this view was bolstered by a number of descriptions of Jesus purporting to date from his lifetime. Nicephorus quotes a description of him as tall and beautiful with fair wavy hair and dark eyebrows that met in the middle. He had an olive tinted complexion "the colour of wheat". One Publius Lentulus is supposed to have described him as perfectly beautiful in features, with "hazel-coloured" hair that flowed to his shoulders, and a forked beard.[13] This description was copied in many artistic portrayals. Some Medieval and Renaissance depictions of Jesus may have been influenced by the Shroud of Turin, and show him having a long face and long facial features.

By the nineteenth century theological arguments were increasingly replaced by biological ones, as attempts were made to envisage Jesus in the context of the people and culture of the Middle East. While some writers stressed his Jewishness, the growth of anti-Semitic racial theory led others, such as Emile Burnouf and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, to argue that he was racially an "Aryan". In more recent times the fact that the Middle East was a meeting point of cultures and races has led to suggestions that he may have been black or Asian. More commonly, he has been portrayed as a bronze-skinned individual typical of the Levant region. A recent reconstruction of a human head, derived from a skull from the region, and dating from around Jesus’s lifetime, was presented as a likely approximation to the "face of Jesus".

Artistic and dramatic portrayals

Main articles: Dramatic portrayals of Jesus, Images of Jesus
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) sparked controversy with its depiction of Jesus' crucifixion.
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) sparked controversy with its depiction of Jesus' crucifixion.

Jesus has been portrayed in countless paintings and sculptures for two thousand years, particularly throughout the Middle Ages. Often he is portrayed as looking like a male from the region of the artist creating the portrait; some African-Americans, for example, portray Jesus as being of African descent. However, the most common depiction of Jesus in the Western world is as a Caucasian due to the predominance of Christianity in Europe, and some portrayals that do not agree with this common conception of him have been sources of controversy (see Race of Jesus). Most of the early artifacts show Jesus as clean shaven. His hair is often long, however, this is probably a result of the mistaken belief that Jesus had taken life-long Nazarite vows, which included not cutting your hair (Samson being the most famous example of life long Nazarite).

Jesus has been featured in many films and media forms, sometimes seriously, and other times satirically. The British musical stage play Jerry Springer - The Opera is a notable recent example of the latter. Many of these portrayals have attracted controversy, both ones that were intended to be based on genuine Biblical accounts (such as Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ and Pier Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew) and ones based on alternative interpretations (such as Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ). Other portrayals have attracted less controversy, such as the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli. Another common method is bringing Jesus' story into the present day (such as in Jesus of Montreal) or imagining his Second Coming (e.g., in The Seventh Sign). In other films Jesus himself is a minor character, used to develop the overall themes or to provide context. For example, in Ben-Hur and The Life of Brian, Jesus only appears in a few scenes.

In music, many songs refer to Jesus, and Jesus provides the theme for many classical works throughout musical history.

In literature, Yeshua, the most common reconstruction of Jesus' name, is a character in the fantasy novel The Master and Margarita by 20th century Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov and in the science fiction short novel Riverworld by the 20th-century American writer Philip Jose Farmer. The portrayal in these two works is so similar that Farmer's narrative can easily be read as a sequel to Bulgakov's.

A mystical version of Jesus as the Eternal Holy Child appears in the story The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. Also, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago wrote his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (ISBN 0151367000) based on his atheist view of Jesus and the Gospels.

Interpretations of Jesus by influential leaders


  1. ^  Christopher Price, "Scholarly opinions on the Jesus Myth", Bede's Library. Accessed October 25, 2005.
  2. ^  Stephen Voorwinde, "The formation of the New Testament", Patornet. Accessed October 25, 2005.
  3. ^  F. F. Bruce, New Testament Documents: Are they reliable?, "Chapter 3: The Canon of the New Testament" (June, 1982), ISBN 087784691X, Inter-Varsity Press.
  4. ^  Coey Keating (December 11, 2005), "Criteria for development of the New Testament canon in the first four centuries of the Christian Church", Fuller Theological Seminary.
  5. ^  Bruce Metzger (1987), The New Testament Canon, page 254.
  6. ^  Jewish Encyclopedia on Pentecost
  7. ^ E. P. Sanders in Jesus and Judaism, pp.264-269, states: "I am one of a growing number of scholars who doubt that there were any substantial points of opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees ... We find no criticism of the law which would allow us to speak of his opposing or rejecting it."
  8. ^ Frederic W. Farrar in Christ in Art (1894) collects all these descriptions. pp. 67-85. PDF of Farrar's book. The descriptions are also collected in other sources: The Nazarene Way: Likeness of our saviour.

Sources and further reading

  • The New Testament of the Bible, especially the Gospels.
  • The Greek New Testament, Aland, United Bible Societies
  • A Textual Commentary on the Greek NT, Metzger
  • Teach Yourself NT Greek, Hudson, ISBN 0844237892
  • The Apostolic Fathers, Lightfoot, Harmer, Holmes
  • Akers, Keith, "The Lost Religion of Jesus," ISBN 1930051263
  • Albright, William F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: An Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths, ISBN 0931464013
  • Badenas, Robert. Christ the End of the Law, Romans 10.4 in Pauline Perspective, ISBN 0905774930
  • Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliablility of the Gospels, ISBN 0877849927
  • Brown, Raymond. Does the NT call Jesus God?, Theological Studies #26, 1965
  • Browne, Sir Thomas. Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 6th edition, 1672, V:vi.
  • Cohen, Shaye J.D. 1988 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah ISBN 0-664-25017-3
  • Craig, William Lane. The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus ISBN 1579104649
  • Craig, William Lane. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan ISBN 0801021758
  • Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus
  • Davenport, Guy and Urrutia, Benjamin. The Logia of Yeshua: The Sayings of Jesus, ISBN 1887178708
  • Doherty, Earl. The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?: Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus, ISBN 0968601405
  • Dunn, James D.G. Jesus, Paul and the Law, ISBN 0664250955
  • Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium, ISBN 019512474X
  • Ehrman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, ISBN 0195154622
  • Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity ISBN 0679767460
  • Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ ISBN 0300084579, ISBN 0300040180
  • Funk, Robert W. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus
  • Gaus, Andy. The Unvarnished New Testament, A new translation from the original Greek free of doctrines and dogmas, ISBN 0933999992
  • Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity A book on Christianity and logical support for Jesus as God. ISBN 0060652926
  • McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Two volumes looking at Jesus from the point of view of evidence. Vol I: ISBN 0918956463 , Vol. II: ISBN 0918956730
  • Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus ISBN 0385264259
  • Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8018-1654-8. A study of the earliest traditions of Israel from linguistic and archaeological evidence which also treats the teachings and followers of Jesus in that context.
  • Mendenhall, George E. Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. ISBN 0-664-22313-3. Another, less technical, study of the earliest traditions of Israel from linguistic and archaeological evidence which also treats the teachings and followers of Jesus in that context.
  • Messori, Vittorio. Jesus hypotheses, St Paul Publications, 1977, ISBN 0854391541; The translation from Italian Ipotesi su Gesù. An amazing and very readable book that shows how Vittorio Messori, a recognized Italian historian who didn't care about faith, explores the question of Jesus, starting from two points of view, mythical (Jesus never lived) and critical (Jesus was not God) and finally comes to the third hypothesis, the one of the faith. The author is also famous as one of the rare who did an interview with Pope John Paul II.
  • Metzger, Bruce, The New Testament Canon, page 254
  • Miller, Robert, The Complete Gospels, the Scholars Version translation of gospels from the first three centuries, includes canonical gospels, Thomas, James, Mary, infancy gospels, fragments, ISBN 0944344305
  • Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester U. Press, 1975.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, Yale University Press, 1985, hardcover, 270 pages, ISBN 0300034962; trade paperback, HarperCollins reprint, 304 pages, ISBN 0060970804; trade paperback, Yale University Press, 1999, 320 pages, ISBN 0300079877
  • Price, Robert M. Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? ISBN 1591021219
  • Sanders, E.P. The historical figure of Jesus, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0140144994. An up-to-date, popular, but thoroughly scholarly book.
  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1987, ISBN 0800620615. More specialistic than the previous book, though not inaccessible.
  • Schaberg, Jane. Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives
  • Shorto, Russell, Gospel Truth, The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History, and Why It Matters ISBN 1-5732-2056-6 (New York, Riverhead Books, 1997).
  • Theissen, Gerd, and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, Fortress Press, 2003, ISBN 0800631226. An amazing book, tough but rewarding, exceptionally detailed.
  • Theissen, Gerd. The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form. Fortress Press.
  • Tolstoy, Leo The Kingdom of God is Within You ISBN 0803294042
  • Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels ISBN 0800614437
  • Walvoord, John F. Jesus Christ Our Lord. Moody Press, 1969. ISBN 0802443265
  • Wilson, Ian Jesus: The evidence ISBN 0297835297
  • Yoder, John H. The Politics of Jesus ISBN 0-8028-0734-8
  • Yogananda, Paramahansa: The Second Coming of Christ, ISBN 0876125550
  • In Quest of the Hero:(Mythos Series)—Otto Rank, Lord Fitzroy Richard Somerset Raglan and Alan Dundes, Princeton University Press, 1990, ISBN 0691020620
  • Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History.
  • The Superhuman life of Gesar of Ling—Alexandra David-Neel (A divine hero still in oral tradition)
  • In some editions of Jewish Antiquities by the Jewish historian Josephus Book 18, chapter 3, paragraph 3 refer to Jesus. Most scholars believe that these passages were added to Josephus's text by later Christians. The Arabic version of Josephus is free of these apparent Christian interpolations, but still makes it clear that Pilate ordered the execution of Jesus.
  • Jesus and the Victory of God N.T.Wright, SPCK (London), 1996 ISBN 0281047170. Second in a projected massive five or six volume series on Christian origins, dealing with the life and death of Christ from a very open Evangelical perspective. The author is now Bishop of Durham (Church of England).
  • Michael H. Hart, The 100, Carol Publishing Group, July 1992, paperback, 576 pages, ISBN 0806513500. Jesus is ranked #3 in this list of the most influential figures in history.
  • Kierkegaard, Soren: "Training in Christianity", Vintage Spiritual Classics
  • Kumar V. and Panakal L.: "The Ancient Mother – I : The Key to the bible" and "The Ancient Mother – II : The Key to the bible", Identity Publishers, Switzerland, 1997. (Available online in PDF format -

See also

External links

Christian views

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Historical and skeptical views

Apostles of Jesus Christ
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James son of Alphaeus | Simon the Zealot | Thaddaeus | Judas Iscariot

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