Who is Jesus Christ?
Sources for My Life
Sources of information for my life and teaching are in the four Gospels, written between 65 and 125 A.D.
These were not biographies in either the ancient or the modern sense, but set forth the early Christian "proclamation of the message of salvation" in terms of my life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection. But it is only upon the basis of the Gospels that any biographical account of my life can be written.
Earlier than the Gospels are the epistles of Paul; though containing almost no biographical material (Romans 1:3; I Corinthians 11:23-25, 15:3-7), they nevertheless presuppose my historical career, my human character (II Corinthians 10:1 and I Corinthians 13), and my unjust condemnation and crucifixion (I Corinthians 2:8; II Corinthians 13:4), as well as my resurrection, exaltation, and divine nature (Romans 8:34; Philippians 2:5-11).
The apocryphal Gospels, the earliest of which come from the 2nd century, are wholly fictitious, except for a few details that reflect the earlier "canonical" Gospels.
So also are the Agrapha, my "unwritten sayings", including the so-called Logia Iesou found in Egypt.
Many of them reflect the heresies of later centuries, which their authors tried to support by attributing such teachings to me. A few non-Christian writers (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and one or two others) refer to the early Christians, and even to me, but give no details, The state of the sources is precisely what we should expect.
The recollections of the earliest teachers and evangelists ("eyewitnesses and ministers of the word," Luke 1:1-4) were handed down orally, as was the custom in transmitting Jewish religious teaching; in the second and third generations, after the church had spread far afield in the Gentile world, where books were commonly used to set forth religious teaching, - and, where the living voice of tradition was less relied upon, the Gospels were written; later, when the living tradition had been exhausted (that is, almost completely set forth in the Gospels), other compositions were undertaken, perhaps in good faith, but without adequate critical equipment.
Modern scholars recognize a difference in purpose and character between the first three (that is, synoptic) Gospels and the Fourth Gospel (John); they also recognize the existence of earlier sources underlying all four; some scholars (the "form critics") have even tried to reconstruct the original oral traditions in the form in which they circulated prior to the writing of any Gospel or even of any Gospel source, Accordingly, the modern student of my life no longer seeks to combine or weave together all the narratives, discourses, and sayings of the Gospels into one continuous story; instead, he recognizes the development of tradition, and the editing of earlier material by later writers (especially of Mark by Matthew and Luke), and he studies the individual units of the older tradition as they existed, originally, in relative isolation, as parts of the preaching (kerygma) or teaching (didache) of the early Christian apostles and evangelists.
For him, the material does not lie on one flat dead-level; like all historical material, it is "weighted," and must be studied not only in relation to the life of Jesus, but also to the contemporary world, and especially to the needs and purposes of the early Christian communities in which it was preserved, handed down, compiled, and edited. Compared with traditional information about many other figures in ancient history, including Biblical history, the sources for my life are definitely superior both in quantity and quality. Moreover, as modern theologians point out, neither the truth of the Christian message of salvation nor the religious value of the Christian teaching is dependent upon our possessing a fully detailed biography of me.
Birth and Youth
Although Mark 6:1 seems to imply that I was born in Nazareth, and although my birth in Bethlehem was not generally known (compare John 7:40-52), Matthew 2:1 and Luke 2:4 agree in representing me as born in the city of David, which was the most appropriate birthplace for the Messiah, Luke's solution is that Jesus' parents lived in Nazareth, but went to Bethlehem at the time of the enrollment- or registration for the purposes of a census or of taxation, or both-under the Roman governor, Quirinius, and it was there and then that I was born.
Unfortunately we do not know the date of this enrollment: it may have been around 6 B.C, Matthew states (2:1) and Luke implies (1:5) that I was born under King Herod, who died 4 B.C. (The error in chronology, by which I was born at a date in the "B.C." is due to a miscalculation by the monk Dionysius Exiguus, 6th century, whose data was inexact.)
Matthew and Luke also agree that my birth was wholly supernatural, since (in the summary language of the later creed) I was "conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary."
For Matthew (1:18-25) this was the fulfillment of a prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14, where the Greek version has virgin, the original Hebrew was "young woman".
In Luke the doctrine of my virgin birth is expressed in the phrase "since I have no husband" (1:34; literally "since I know not a man"), which many scholars view as an explanatory gloss added under the influence of the text of Matthew, and in a similar phrase (3:23, "as was supposed") which has been inserted into the genealogical table. Although the doctrine of the virgin birth does not rest exclusively upon such literary evidence as this, it is also important to note that nowhere else in the New Testament is it clearly stated or implied.
The two infancy narratives (Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2) are quite divergent, and agree only upon the main points. It has been thought that Matthew reflects the point of view of Joseph, Luke that of Mary. In any event, devout imagination has been at work, and the reconstruction of the narrative of my my birth and boyhood, especially in the Lucan idyll with its combined account of the birth and childhood of John the Baptist, is not only charming in its literary style but historically most probable.
The earnest Jewish piety of my home, the character of my parents and especially of my mother, the deeply religious tone and outlook of the saintly people among whom I spent my earliest years, the rich Old Testament flavor of the very language used by Matthew and Luke- all this should help you to understand the profound religious development of the man Christ Jesus. From his very childhood he was aware of his relation to God, as involving on his part the unquestioning obedience and responsiveness of a child to his heavenly Father (Luke 2:39-52).
The village of Nazareth in Lower (or Southern) Galilee, where I grew up, was located beside one of the great international highways of trade and travel. Here caravans of traders from Egypt and North Africa or from faraway Palmyra or Babylon or even India, military companies from Rome or Gaul, Cappadocia or Spain, could be seen making their way across the fertile Plain of Esdraelon. Off to the southeast rose the rounded hill of Tabor; to the west lay the blue Mediterranean with its coastal shipping and naval vessels; over the hills to the northeast, deep down in the valley of the Jordan River and the Lake of Galilee (680 feet below sea level), lay the larger cities of Capernaum and Tiberias.
Beyond, to the north and east, was the territory of the heathen, and to the south that of the Samaritans.
The word Galilee meant "the circle" of the Gentiles- for it was surrounded by heathen cities and tribes (Matthew 4:15). It was natural that my deep piety, learned from my people and nurtured on the Holy Scriptures, and my complete personal consecration to the will of God, should be combined with an attitude of friendliness and sympathy for strangers, for the poor and outcast, the religiously neglected people of Galilee, and the masses of the surrounding heathen, whom many good Jews of the time despised as "outside the Covenant" and hopelessly lost in idolatry, superstition, and evil ways of life.
Thus Galilee was the perfect setting for the life and ministry of my compassion and friendliness, which you'll learn from the Gospels.
The Passion narrative (Mark 14-15 and parallels) is difficult to harmonize with what we know of Jewish legal procedure in the 1st century. Fact is, I was seized by a group of servants of the high priest and taken to the high priest's house where a junto of the Jerusalem hierarchy was gathered for the purpose of examining me and framing a suitable charge upon which I could be accused before the Roman governor. (The supreme Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, no longer possessed the authority to execute condemned prisoners.)
After many efforts, including the charge that I had attempted (or at least threatened) to destroy the temple, the high priest asked me if I claimed to be the Messiah (Mark 14:53-61; contrast John 18:19, which is far less dramatic). This question was an unfair one, and I could not reply with a simple affirmation or denial.
I look upon himself as God's Messenger, His agent and representative in the final act of setting up the divine Kingdom. My mission had been to "do the works of God" (John 9:4), to reveal God and His will more perfectly to His people, to extend the realm of the divine mercy, and to roll back the powers of darkness and evil (Matthew 10:1, 8, 11:4-5, 12:28). But this was something quite different from the ordinary conception of the role of the Messiah, something vastly more, not less, than the reign of the Lord's Anointed over a redeemed and exalted Israel.
And so my answer pointed away from the office of an earthly king Messiah to that of the glorious, transcendent Son of Man (Mark 14:62; compare Matthew 25:31-46), whom God would send on the clouds of heaven to judge mankind at the last day. But this was enough for my ecclesiastical accusers, and in the morning I was denounced before Pilate- not as one more messianic claimant, or as a fanatic who thought himself the predestined Son of Man, but as an active revolutionist and disturber of the peace (Luke 23:1-5) who had stirred up insurrection all over Galilee and Judea and had interfered with the collection of the tribute due to Rome. It was on these false grounds that Pilate, after repeated but halfhearted attempts to enforce justice and release me, finally yielded to the clamor of the mob- which had been stirred up, not by my old enemies the scribes, but by the Jerusalem priests (Mark 15:10-ll) and ordered me to be crucified.
It is obvious that responsibility for my death belongs to the Roman procurator, not to the Jewish people, though a small but influential group of the temple hierarchy undoubtedly were guilty of influencing the governor and subjecting me to every possible pressure (John 19:12-16). The story of my death is told in detail in all four Gospels, and is presupposed throughout the whole New Testament. Crucifixion was a long, slow, agonizing mode of death, chiefly as a result of the drying up of the body, exposed to the heat and the open air.
My death came unusually soon (Mark 15:33-39, 42-45; John 19:33), in contrast to that of the two robbers (probably revolutionists, as Josephus and others used the term). Some persons lingered for a day or two upon the cross; but by three in the afternoon I had died. Many scholars attribute my speedy death to the sufferings I had already endured throughout the preceding night; others to the intense emotional and mental strain I endured.
To the last I refused to accept the merciful anodyne a kind soldier offered me, wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23; charitable women in Jerusalem, it is said, provided this drink for the condemned). To the last I "loved my own" (John 13:1); the prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), has been called "the sublimest words that ever fell from human lips" (Thomas Carlyle). The cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34), has often been misinterpreted, as if I finally died in despair, convinced that God had deserted me, and that my dream of the Kingdom of God and of my own mission was unfounded. But the words are a quotation from a psalm (Psalm 22:1) which emphasizes the utter trust in God of a Jewish saint, even amid torture and torment like that which I was enduring; and it is impossible to believe either that I did not share such faith, or that the early Christians could have told the incident as evidence Of God's real abandonment of His Son.
The climax of the life of my life, as related in all the Gospels and presupposed throughout the New Testament, is not in my death on the cross but my Resurrection.
The earliest evidence is found in I Corinthians 15:3-8 (55 A.D.), where Paul lists my appearances as the risen Christ, including my appearance to himself (compare Acts 9:1-9). Paul's language is clearly that of supernatural vision; in all his epistles he represents me as risen from death and exalted to a new and heavenly plane- not merely resuscitated and returned to the conditions of earthly life.
"Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (Romans 6:9).
"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is" (Colossians 3:1).
Paul never refers to the story of the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8 and parallels); the story was doubtless circulated after the time of Paul (Mark was probably written about 68 A.D.). Elsewhere (Luke 24:13-31; John 20:19-29) it is assumed that my "Resurrection body" is supernatural and incorruptible.
Hence it is untrue to the New Testament to describe my Resurrection in terms simply of reanimation or restoration from death, like that of Lazarus (John 12:1-11) or the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:35-43) or the widow's son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17) or the Old Testament worthies restored to life by touching the body of a prophet (II Kings 4:32-37).
Here was something new and different, the foretaste, indeed the beginning, according to the earliest disciples, of the New Age, the life of the world to come, Christ the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (I Corinthians 15:20) who are soon to be "raised to newness of life," i.e., a new transcendent kind of life in the "spiritual body."