He was born near AD 0 in Nazareth. The biblical attempt to link his birth with Bethlehem has probably no historical substance and is just one of several mythical elements to make him appear more holy. To be born by a virgin and in connection with special effects in the sky (comets or “unusual stars”, i.e.supernovae) are common elements of such stories in antiquity. Julius Caesar claimed his family to be of divine origin, and up into very recent times kings claimed divine legitimation .
About the first three decades of his life we know hardly anything. He was a carpenter, maybe even some sort of civil engineer.
When Jesus was ca. 30 years old he began preaching. For one year he was active in a relative small area near the village Kapernaum at the northwestern shore of the Lake of Gennesaret.
As a preacher he was not very successful at first. After one year of preaching he had some 10 followers and preached in a triangle shaped area with a side length of some 30, 40 km (some 20-25 miles). When he tried to convince the people living at the eastern shore of the Lake of Gennesaret they basically told him to leave. Descriptions of failure and doubt like these add to the credibility of the gospels. On the other hand, they also contain many “special effect” scenes to spice the story up like the famous walking on water scene that followed. According to the New Testament this happened when Jesus and his followers were on their way back across the lake.
At this time Jesus was not very satisfied with his success as a preacher. He thought about a more spectacular event to make his ideas known to a larger group of people. So he decided to go to Jerusalem to seek the confrontation with traditional orthodox Jewish religion, i.e. the temple priests.
Jesus was a Jew. He wanted to modernise Jewish belief, rather than creating a new religion. Exactly as Martin Luther some 1500 years wanted to modernise Christianity, not to split Christian believe in Catholics and Protestants . In both cases, however, reforming did not work. Instead, a new religion was created. In history this always brought social unrest, wars and misery.
Jewish belief taught that the Messiah would come some day. Jesus taught that he was the Messiah. From the traditional Jewish viewpoint that was blasphemy.
Jesus ideas were especially appealing to those who lived under unfortunate conditions. This made Christianity increasingly attractive when the Roman Empire collapsed several hundred years later. Decades after Jesus’ death his religious idea was just one among many in the Roman Empire.
This can be roughly compared to Communism which appeared like a great idea to the many people who lived in very poor, even slave like conditions in Russia at the beginning of the 20. century. For those living in modern wealthy industry countries it is not attractive. The more unfortunate the economical circumstances the stricter are moral rules and the more important is religion.
To promote his religious convictions Jesus went to Jerusalem. The city was the religious and worldly center of the country. It was the place were famous King Solomon had erected the first temple some 900 years earlier. It was destroyed by the Babylonians after a Jewish uprise in 587 BC. Herod the Great build the second temple, one of the wonders of antiquity. It was opened in 10 BC so it was still pretty new when Jesus entered the city. He did so on a donkey to demonstrate his claim to be the Messiah. He did so on the eve of the passover feast so the city was full of pilgrims and the worldly and religious authorities were rather nervous. 120 hours later he was dead.
Right after his arrival Jesus was looking for a confrontation with the temple priests. Everyone knows the scene where Jesus throws the dealers out of the temple. Today many people think that these where ordinary merchants who misused the temple as an ordinary market place. But this is not necessarily so. Many scholars believe the merchants in the temple were part of religious life. They sold small animals to be sacrificed e.g. pigeons. To buy something in the temple area ritually clean money was needed so visitors had to change their ordinary money. To Jesus all of this was a violation of this sacred place but it is very well possible that the scenes on the temple area did not differ significantly from medieval or modern pilgrim places.
When Jesus challenged religious and worldly authorities he was aware of the risk he was taking. The gospels report of three death visions he had. He knew he put his life in danger and he was afraid of dying. Though he was very religious he still had a sense of reality. He knew the danger and he had the option to escape but did not do it. He felt he needed to risk his life for his religious conviction.
When soldiers arrested Jesus later in the Gethsemane garden on the mount of olives they did not know how he looked like. This and the fact that he was not arrested at the temple indicates the destruction he caused was limited. Judas had to identify him. In common perception Judas was a traitor. This is probably a misconception. Jesus was not on the run. He was not living in hiding. Instead he openly challenged the authorities and showed no inclination to stop. Probably we would have been arrested the next day without Judas. Furthermore, it seemed the other disciples did not consider him a traitor.
The following legal prosecution was at first dominated by the question who was in charge. According to the gospels the Roman governor Pontius Pilate did not want this trial but could not prevent it. When questioned by Pilate Jesus gave some rather unclear answers. These answers put him into danger. Pilate found him innocent. Nevertheless, in the next scene described by the gospels he asks the people whether they want to set free Jesus or Barabbas. This question only makes sense when Jesus is convicted. The people chose Barabbas and Jesus was crucified.
This course of events as described in the gospels is illogical. Pilate was the only man with the power to sentence somebody to crucification. Still, the gospels claim he acquitted Jesus. To explain this contradiction, they described Pilate as a man who had Jesus killed to please the mob. It is extremely improbable that a Roman governor would do so. He would lose all authority.
The best explanation for this contradiction is the desire of those who wrote the gospels to let Rome appear in a good light. This in turn was necessary for the gospels to survive for centuries in a world ruled by Rome. Consequently, for centuries to come it was a common opinion that “the Jews killed Jesus” which is a) incorrect and b) illogical since he was a Jew, too. Nevertheless, it served as an official justification for countless attacks on Jewish communities in later centuries.
From the viewpoint of self preservation Jesus acted not very skilfully when questioned by the authorities. Instead of saying “Your Honour Pilate, this is all a terrible misunderstanding. True, I promote my religious ideas which differ from the convictions of the temple priests. But I would never argue Rome’s supreme authority!” he said hardly anything and the few words he said were ambiguous.
On the other hand, one does probably not do justice to Jesus when evaluating his actions under the viewpoint of self preservation. He had a religious goal which required challenging the authorities. He was well aware of his personal danger but considered his mission worth the risk.
From the later church manager’s point of view, however, the execution of Jesus was necessary to a) make him a martyr which makes the story more exciting and b) to introduce the biologically questionable idea of resurrection which became vital to Chistianity.
Most of the people around Jesus were not arrested. Joseph of Arimathea was jailed for 40 years but as far as I know the disciples remained free and fled. It seems they were considered too unimportant and not dangerous enough by the law enforcement authorities. At this point everything could have been over. But it was not. In my opinion, to the most interesting aspects of Christianity belongs the question how the Christians managed over a centuries long process to stay alive as a religious group and finally to become the most important religion in central Europe. Christian religion owns its success not only to Jesus but at least as much to those who managed and promoted it in the centuries to come.
(C) 2006-2011 Thorsten Straub, www.biblical-finds.com