In his public ministry Jesus Christ was portrayed as an itinerant religious teacher traveling from town to town throughout Judea. From both an objective and religious viewpoints Jesus is more of a mystical and mythological figure than a historical one.
Traditional Christian belief holds that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God. The primary sources concerning Jesus’ life and teachings come entirely from Christian provenance except for two references to him from Josephus, Antiquities 18. 3. 3, 20. 9. 1) the first is partly a Christian interpolation; the Talmud offers two reports of value (B. Sanhedrin 43a, B. Aboda Zara 16b-17a), other references to Jesus in rabbinic literature being based on much later anti-Christian invention. Roman legal sources are likewise nonexistent, in spite of Christian claims from the second century AD that there were records of Jesus’ trial. Little historical value is to be found in early Christian texts such as the apocryphal gospels or other second-century or later writings.
It is primarily from the Biblical New Testament, notably the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that the most pertinent information concerning Jesus is derived. And to further emphasize a mythological viewpoint of Jesus his teachings, especially his parables, contain mystical elements. Therefore the study of Jesus and Christianity also involves the study of the mystical and mythological.
Perhaps the best way to begin is with a summation of the life of Jesus. This summary will be in narrative form with sparse Biblical references given to indicate that it is Biblically based and to give readers an easy reference guide. In the Christian tradition the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth are both unique and mystical.
To understand them is to understand the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. They were second cousins, with John the Baptist’s birth being angelically announced first. John’s father Zacharis, who was a temple priest, was told while burning incense in the temple by the angel Gabriel that his wife Elisabeth would bear him a son. Zacharis doubted because he know both he and his wife old, and for his disbelief he was struck dumb. However, the angel told him that when the foretold things were accomplished he would speak again (Luke 1:9-25).
Next the angel Gabriel visited a virgin named Mary in Nazareth of Galilee. To her he announced that she would give birth to a son named Jesus who would be called the son of the Highest; and to him the Lord God would give the throne of David. Mary asked how this could be, for she knew not man. Then the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the Highest would overshadow her and a holy thing should be born unto her which would be called the Son of God. The angel also announce that her cousin Elisabeth was to give birth (Luke 1:26-38).
Mary went to Elisabeth and stayed with her three months before retuning home. Elisabeth gave birth to a son. On the eighth day the child was to be circumcised and named. Her neighbors and cousins sought to name the child after his father Zacharis, Elisabeth said no, the child was to be called John. The people answered her that no kindred were named that. Then they turned to Zacharis and asked him what the child should be named. He, asking for a writing tablet, wrote His name is John. They all marveled, and marveled more when Zacharis began speaking and praising the Lord (Luke 1:56-66).
Then came the time when Caesar Augustus issued a degree for all to be registered. Joseph, being of the house of David, took his espoused wife Mary, who was with child, to Bethlehem were they were to be counted. The city was crowded, finding no room at an inn they were housed in a stable. Here Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. On the eighth day the child was taken to the temple to be circumcised and named Jesus.
And, in the temple they were greeted by Simeon, a righteous and devout man to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that he should not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, who took the child Jesus in his arms and thanked God saying, “My eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared before all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people, Israel.” Simeon them blessed them and said to the mother Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel and for a sign which shall be spoken against.
Yes, a sword shall pierce you heart too, that the thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed.” Immediately after they met the prophetess Anna, was just entering the temple, and she too gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of him to those looking for the redemption in Jerusalem (Luke 2:23-38).
After this Mary and Joseph with the child were going to return to Nazareth, their home, but in a dream Joseph was warned by an angel not to, instead they were to flee to Egypt because King Herod wanted to kill the child. Herod knew of the child from the wise men, or magi, from the east who had inquired of the king the location of a newborn king, supposedly born King of the Jews, for they had came to worship him. Herod did not know of whom they sought, but called his chief priests and scribes to ask them.
They told him of Bethlehem, for the prophet had written, “And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come a Governor who shall rule the people of Israel.” Then in secrecy Herod inquired of the wise men diligently what time the star had appeared. He then sent them to Bethlehem to earnestly search for the child, saying when the found the child they were to return and tell him that he also could go and worship him (Matthew 2:13, 2-8).
Going to Bethlehem the wise men saw the star and found the Christ child lying in a manger. They immediately fell down to adore him, giving him presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On their return they were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go back to their country another way (Matthew 2:10-12).
After Herod’s death in a dream an angel told Joseph to return to Israel, for those who sought the child’s life were dead. But before Herod died Bethlehem felt his wrath. It angered him tremendously when the magi did not return, still more he sought to kill the child, and ordered children two years and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area to be slain. (Matthew 2:13-14, 16).
But Joseph did not stay in Israel when hearing of the reign of Archelaus, the son of Herod. Remembering God’s warning in the dream, he was afraid for the child, and turn toward Galilee, and the town of Nazareth; thus as the prophets spoke, He shall be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:22-23).
The next incident that is Biblically recorded of Jesus’ youth occurs when he was twelve. The family with friends and relatives went to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover. When returning, unbeknown to Mary and Joseph, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem.
After a day’s journey his parents sought to find their son among the group and discovered him missing. They returned to Jerusalem to find him; and after three days of searching they found him in the temple. To their astonishment, he was among the teachers both listening to them and asking them questions. And his parents asked him why he had did this to them, did not he know they sought him with sorrow. He answered asking why they sought him, did not they know that he had to be about his Father’s business. They did not understand what he said. He returned to Nazareth and was obedient to them, but his mother kept all these things in her heart. Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:41-52).
After the years of silence one sees Jesus meeting John the Baptist. John was an iterant preacher as Jesus would become. John baptized in the wilderness, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. He preached throughout Judea, and they came from Jerusalem to be baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. John wore camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waste; and ate only locusts and wild honey. He preached that after him would come one who was mightier, the latchet of whose shoes he was not worthy to stoop down to loose. John said he baptized with water, but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:4-8).
Then one day Jesus came from Nazareth and John baptized him in the Jordan. And, as Jesus came up from the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descended upon him, and from out of the heaven came a voice saying, “Thou are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11).
Many believe that the baptism of Jesus initiated his public ministry, and what immediately followed set its theme. This was Jesus’ temptation. First the Devil tempted Jesus, if he be the Son of God, to make bread from stones; and Jesus answered, It is written that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Then the Devil commands Jesus, if he be the Son of God, to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, for it is said the angels will save him. And Jesus answered again, It is written again, Thou shall not put the Lord, thy God, to the test. The Devil for the third time tempts Jesus on a high mountain, if he be the Son of God, showing him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, offers it all to him, if Jesus would worship him. Again Jesus answers, Satan, for it is written, Thou shall worship the Lord, thy God, and only him thou shall serve. The Devil then left and angels then came and ministered to Jesus (Matthew 4:3-11).
As previously stated Jesus’ statements established the theme of his ministry and preaching: spirituality against the world. Also, as will be shown, it also inserts contradiction into his ministry because some are drawn to him because of the worldly benefits that he inserts into their lives.
For instance while Jesus spoke against the world, or being worldly and/or corporal, he physically healed the sick and afflicted, such healings are considered miracles which he performed and part of his ministry. At times it is difficult to see where Jesus drew a line between the temporal and spiritual. A young ruler asked Jesus how he might attain eternal life, Jesus said by keeping the Commandments to which the young leader answered he had, but asked what more he could do.
Jesus answered the he should sell all he had and fellow him. Hearing this, the man turned away unhappy for he thought he could not do that. Then Jesus said that a rich man would have difficulty entering the kingdom of heaven; for it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. This emphasized his teaching that people were to store up treasures in heaven and not on earth (Matthew 19:16-23).
But at the same time Jesus cured people, making their life better on earth. For example, Jesus cleansed a leper, cured the centurion’s servant, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, exorcized demons, and helped many others (Matthew 8:1-17). This raises the questioned, if the kingdom of heaven and its treasures are so much more important, then why did Jesus seek to improve human life on earth? Jesus stressed earthly things were not to be of concern, but physical health pertains to the world.
One answer to this paradoxical question seems to be that these healings and driving out of demons, according to Jesus, showed the glory of the Father. When the crowd within his town saw Jesus attempt to cure a paralytic man they thought it was blasphemous. Jesus knowing their thoughts asked is it easier to say your sins are forgiven you, or arise and walk.
He continued by telling them so they would know that the Son of man had the power to forgive sin he would tell the man to arise and walk. Immediately after doing so the man arose and went to his house. After seeing this, the crowd marveled and glorified God for giving such power to men (Matthew 9:1-8).
Another time when meeting a man who was blind from birth his disciples asked Jesus whether the man or his parents had sin to cause his blindness. Jesus answered neither had sinned, but the works of God should be made manifest in him. Jesus continued by saying that he must do the works of the one who sent him while it was day, for in the night no one can work.
He then declared himself the light of the world. Jesus then spat on the ground, making clay of the spittle, he anointed the man’s eyes with it. Then he told the man to go and wash in the pool of Silioam. The man went and washed, and returned seeing.
Many of his neighbors when seeing him were in disbelief, some recognized him as being blind from birth, while others thought it was one of his brothers. The Pharisees also questioned him, for two reasons: they doubted he had received his sight as he said and he had received it on the Sabbath. Therefore some Pharisees said that whoever did this was not a man of God because he did not keep the Sabbath.
Others said that whoever performed such a miracle could not be a sinner; and there was division among them. They then called the parents of the man and questioned them. They swore the man was their son who was born blind, and answered they knew not how he now saw; they further answered their son was of age, ask him.
The parents answered that way because the feared the Jews since they knew the Jews had already declared if any man confessed that he was Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. They questioned the son again, and after some debate they cast him out, not believing him after telling him that he himself was born in sins, how dare he try to teach them.
When Jesus heard of this he again found the man and identified himself. After the man worshipped him as the Son of God Jesus said that he had came into this world for judgment so that they who do not see, might see, and they who see, might be made blind.
Upon hearing this, the Pharisees asked if they were blind. Jesus answered them that if they were blind, they would have no sin; but, they said, they see, therefore, their sin remains (John 9).
Jesus frequently said that he was doing the work of the one who sent him, or the Father. He never attributed power to himself, but to the Father. He seemed to emphasize this concept prior to his crucifixion when Pilate told him that he had the power to crucify him.
Jesus answered Pilate, “You would have no power at all over me unless it was given to you from above, therefore, he that delivered me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:10-11). From this many conclude that Jesus proclaimed that all personal power comes from above, the Father, and, likewise, all things glorify the Father.
Just as all things glorify the Father, the Father cares for, or protects all things. This was emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus asked the people why they worried about their life, what they should eat or drink, about their body and what they should put on. He asked if life was not more than food; or the body more than raiment.
Which of you by worry can add one cubit to your stature? Consider the lilies of the fields, how they grow; they do not spin nor toil. For Solomon, in all of his glory, was not arrayed as one of them. If God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven, how much more will he clothe you; oh you, of little faith (Matthew 6:25-30).
Many believe that Jesus also did likewise in caring for people; one of his miracles demonstrated this. They had been preaching throughout the day and it was becoming evening when the disciples advised him to send the multitude of people home.
Jesus knowing the people were hungry said to give them food. The disciples answered that they had no more the two fishes and five loaves. The people were seated. Jesus took the loaves and fishes, looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke. Then he gave to the disciples to distribute among the people. All ate, and afterwards the fragments filled twelve baskets (Mark 9:12-17).
Many feel that Jesus was a rebel in his time and love him for this characteristic. His feeding of the multitude is one example of his compassion for people. Along with this went another trait that Jesus possessed; this was his disobedience of social standards.
An example of this is his meeting with the Sumerian woman who came to fetch water at the well by which he rested while his disciples went to buy food.
That Jesus, a Jew, should speak to her shocked her, but that he asked her for a drink of water even stunned her more; for she asked, “How is it that you, being a Jew, ask me for a drink of water? I am a woman of Sumaria, and Jews have no dealings with Sumerians (John 4:6-9).
This sort of behavior of Jesus did not set well with certain groups of Jewish society. His calling of Matthew afterwards drew criticism. Matthew was a tax collector, or a portitor, employed by the Romans. One day when passing by tax office Jesus asked him to follow him by becoming one of his disciples. Matthew immediately went with Jesus; Matthew’s abrupt decision to go with Jesus has prompted some to speculate the two were previously acquainted.
Afterwards Matthew gave a feast at his home in honor of Jesus and perhaps to say farewell to friends and relatives (Unger 705). Portitors, because of their affiliation with the Romans were a class which was not favored among Jewish society. So when the Pharisees and their scribes saw Jesus eating with these people they murmured against his disciples. Jesus hearing this answered, ‘they that are well do not need a physician, but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but the sinner to repentance (Luke 5:27-32).
One morning when teaching at the temple the scribes and Pharisees brought before him a woman caught in adultery. Jesus knew that they meant to test him, for they said that Moses in the law commanded that the woman be stoned. Jesus, acting as if he had not heard them, stooped down and wrote on the ground with hid finger.
So when they continued asking him, he stood up and answered, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” He then stooped down again. What they had heard made them be convicted by their own conscience, so they began turning away, beginning with the eldest to the last. Only the woman was left. When Jesus stood up again he asked the woman where her accusers where. Has no man condemned you? She answered him, “No man, Lord.” Then Jesus told her that he did not either; go, and sin no more (John 8:2-11).
Jesus’ ministry is remembered for his preaching, healing of the sick and lame, exorcism of evil spirits, forgiveness of sins, and social disturbance, but, most of all, Jesus is remembered, especially by his followers, the Christians, for his crucifixion, death and resurrection. Even though these events help form the essence of Christian faith and religion, there are no historical records of them, again only the Biblical records these events. Many wonder why such pivotal events which influence the lives of so many have no historical basis.
Since Jesus crucifixion was executed by the Roman authorities in Judea some scholars think his offence was political rather than religious as the Bible insists (Bowker 498). Other scholars think the offences of Jesus, to varying degrees, were both political and religious. As previously mentioned Jesus did not conform to traditional social behavior; he crossed the line; the Pharisees, for example, were always on him for doing things on the Sabbath, which was prohibited by Jewish law (Matthew 12:1-13). Such behavior did not set well with the Jewish leaders of the time. The events surrounding Jesus’ death occurred during the Feast of Passover in Jerusalem.
The city was crowded and busy making for anxious times for both the Jewish and Roman officials. There is evidence to justify Jesus offences could be construed as being political. By going to Jerusalem at this particular time Jesus put himself in the very thick of things, which, some say, fulfilled Deuteronomy 17:8-18. His reputation had gone before him, the Jewish leaders knew of his teachings, and the Roman authorities were striving to keep peace during this anxious time. One can imagine what a disturbance Jesus caused when he drove the money changers from the temple; Jesus entered the temple and started casting out those who sold and bought there; he threw over the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves.
For he said, “It is written that My house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a house of thieves.” And when seeing this the scribes and chief priests sought ways to destroy him because they feared him. Afterwards they saw how he cured the blind and lame, and the people were astonished by his teaching (Matthew 21:12-16).
It was within this atmosphere that the disciple Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and asked them what they would give him if he delivered Jesus to them. Delighted by the prospect, they offered him thirty pieces of silver; and from then on Judas looked for his opportunity (Matthew 26:14-16).
Most important was the Passover meal, that was to be Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, which is why it has become known as the Last Supper at which, many believe, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Communion. It took place in an upper room, Jesus and the twelve disciples were present. It was then that Jesus said that one of them had betrayed him.
Commotion arose for they began asking each other who it was. Jesus answered, “It is one of the twelve who dipped his hand with me in the dish. It is written that it would have been better if he had never been born (Mark 14:20-21). After this Jesus took bread, blessed, and broke it, giving to each saying, “Take eat; this is my body.”
Likewise, he took the cup filled with wine, giving thanks, he passed it to them saying, “Drink you all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).
Afterwards they go to the Mount of Olives, and then to Gethsemane where Jesus prays to the heavenly Father to take this cup from him, if possible, but your will shall be done. He then returns to the disciples to find them sleeping.
He asks if they could not watch with him, and reminds them to pray unless they fall into temptation; and says the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Jesus returned to pray two more times asking that his burden be lifted from him. Then he told the disciples to rise, it was time to go, his betrayer had come.
As soon as he had said this there appeared a multitude with swords coming on behalf of the chief priests and elders. With them was Judas Iscariot. He came forward and kissed Jesus, which was his way of signaling him out to his capturers. As Jesus asked him, “Friend, why have you come?” his capturers siege him and begun leading him away (Matthew 26:47-50).
From there Jesus was taken to the high priest who was assembled with the chief priests, elders, and scribes. Jesus stood silently before them while many false accusations were made against him. None of the accusations were in agreement. Then the high priest again questioned him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
To this Jesus answered, “I am, and you shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes, and said no further witnesses were needed, all had heard the blasphemy. He asked the audience what they thought, and they all agreed he was guilty and condemned him to death (Mark 14:53-64).
In the morning all in the assembly consulted together deciding to deliver Jesus to Pilate. Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews, to which Jesus answered, “You say it.” The chief priest continued accusing him of many things. Eventually Pilate told him many charges had been brought against him, had he nothing to say for himself? Jesus remained silent which caused Pilate to marvel (Mark 15:1-5).
Now it was the custom that at the feast of Passover that he, Pilate, should release one prisoner, whoever they desired, to them. There was one prisoner, Barabbas, who was guilty of murder and insurrection, Pilate chose him. He asked the excited crowd who they wanted him to release, the King of the Jews or Barabbas. The chief priests agitated the crowd more and they said they wanted Barabbas released. Then Pilate, knowing what was happening, asked what they wanted him to do with the King of the Jews. They cried, “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:6-14).
Pilate, then in frustration, asked them again what they wanted him to do with Jesus, the one called Christ. Again the crowd cried, “Crucify him!” His frustration was increased by his wife’s previous confession that she had experienced a dream, and Pilate should have nothing to do with this righteous man. Pilate further asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they still cried let him be crucified. Seeing that he could not prevail, Pilate took water and washed his hands saying to the crowd, “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous person. You do it!” Then the people answered, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:15-25).
Jesus is then given to the governor’s soldiers who took him to a hall were they gathered. There they stripped him, and put a scarlet robe on him, then put a crown of thorns on his head and a reed in his hand; and then they mocked him, saying “Hail, King of the Jews!” They then spat on him and took the reed and smote his head. Afterwards, they disrobed him, and put on his remnant in which he was led away to be crucified. As they came out another man was forced to help Jesus carry his cross (Matthew 27:27-32).
At the place known as Golgotha, place of a skull, he was nailed, in his hands and feet, to the cross and raised. A sign was placed over his head reading, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Many mocked him as he hung there, even the two thieves crucified beside him. There came darkness upon the area from the sixth to the ninth hour. It was them Jesus uttered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some heard this, they said, “This man calls for Ellijah. A man held up vinegar on a sponge for Jesus to drink. Others said, “Let him be, let us see if Ellijah will come to save him.” Jesus cried once more, and yielded up the spirit (Matthew 27:33-50).
After being removed from the cross, Jesus was to be buried. The burial was hurried because there was also the preparation for the Sabbath, the next day. It was Joseph of Arimathea, a honorable counselor, who went to Pilate seeking the body for burial. Pilate was surprised that the death occurred so quickly. He asked for confirmation from a centurion, who confirmed it. Afterwards, Jesus’ body was given to Joseph. It was the wrapped in linen and lain in the sepulcher with a stone rolled unto the door (Mark 15:42-47).
Following the Sabbath, on the first day of the week as the sun was rising upon the sepulcher, women came with sweet spices to anoint the body. They asked who would roll the heavy stone away for them. But when arriving they saw the stone had been rolled away. Upon entering the sepulcher they were amazed to see a young man sitting to the right clothed in a white garment. He told them not to be afraid, he knew that the sought Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. The man announced he had arisen, he was not there; and they were to behold the place where they had laid him. He further bid them to go and tell his disciples (Mark 16:1-7).
Afterwards, the same day, two disciples told how the Lord had broke bread with them on the Emmans Road and they recognized him. As they spoke Jesus appeared standing within their midst, and greeted them with “Peace be unto you.” They were terrified and frightened, fearing that they might have seen a spirit. He asked them, “Why are you troubled? Why are these thoughts in your heads?”
He continued by telling them to observe his hands and feet, assuring them that he was himself. And while they were still wondering, but not joyfully, he asked if they had anything to eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish which he ate before them (Luke 24:35-43).
And he further told them to go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature, if they who believe and are baptized will be saved, but those who do not will be damned. These signs shall follow those who believe; in his name they shall cast out demons, speak with new tongues, they shall pick up serpents and if they drink anything deadly, it shall not hurt them; and they shall lay hands on the sick; and thy shall recover (Mark 16:15-18).
So after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God (Mark 16:19). A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 581-587
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 496-499