The focus of Christian devotion; born a Palestinian Jew c. 4 BCE.

1. The name

A common personal name for Jewish males in the centuries BCE; it is the Latin form of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Joshua or Jehoshua, and means ‘He whose salvation is Yahweh’. Joshua was the name of Moses' successor who commanded the Israelite forces when they occupied Canaan, and it was the name of the author of Ecclus. [= Sir.]. (When Joshua is mentioned in NT at Acts 7: 45 and Heb. 4: 8, the name appears in AV, misleadingly for modern readers, as ‘Jesus’.) Josephus mentions four high priests called Jesus, and one of Paul's fellow workers was called Jesus Justus (Col. 4: 11). Later the name was dropped for Christians out of piety and by Jews out of revulsion, though in modern times ‘Jesus’ has been used at baptisms for children in Spain and the Philippines.

The name Jesus occupies many columns in NT concordances, often with ‘of Nazareth’ added, but ‘Jesus Christ’ appears only twice in the synoptics, though it is common in the epistles, and Paul uses ‘Jesus’ (by itself) only eighteen times.

2. The life of Jesus: the evidence in ancient historians

Outside the NT, there is little recorded about ‘Jesus of Nazareth’: a reference in Josephus' Antiquities (xviii. 63) describes Jesus as a wise man who performed astonishing deeds, and a teacher; Tacitus (c. 110 CE) mentions his death, and Pliny (c. 110 CE) refers to Christians who worship ‘Christ as a God’; Suetonius (c. 120 CE) mentions the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 49 CE when they had rioted about a certain ‘Chrestos’ (probably a mistake for ‘Christos’). There are a few references to Jesus in rabbinic writings but they yield very little historical evidence; they reject his claim to be Son of Man, and there are several references to the crucifixion, and suggestions in connection with miracles and the resurrection that Jesus was a magician. However, the discoveries of the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices have made possible a new evaluation of Christian origins and a more reliable assessment of the Jewishness of Jesus and his teaching.

Nevertheless several rival versions of the life of Jesus by journalists and others have attracted popular interest. A Shinto priest claimed that Jesus had fled to Japan where he lived to be 112, and married a Japanese woman. The Da Vinci Code (2004) of Dan Brown sold 80 million copies and alleged that a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was born in what is now France. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas was widely quoted when it was published in 2006 for its transformation of Judas from villain into hero.

3. The life of Jesus: the NT evidence

It is necessarily from the gospels that evidence for Jesus' life and teaching must be drawn. And because they were written from within the Christian community in response to its own internal needs, they must be examined (as they have been) with all the resources at the command of scholarship, and their claims tested by appropriate criteria of coherence and methodology, as well as in the light of what is known of social, political, and intellectual conditions of the 1st cent. CE.

The study of the historical Jesus has had many repercussions and consequences, even in politics and in international relations. It was held in the gospel of Barnabas (in the 15th cent. CE) that Jesus prophesied the coming of Muhammad and that it was Judas who was crucified—though this work was probably a medieval forgery by a convert to Islam. In modern times Jesus has been portrayed as an economic reformer (an early Marxist), as an anti-Roman Black Messiah, as a Liberator of the poor; and as a pacifist; a Socialist, a Freemason; and the first utilitarian philosopher. It has been alleged that Jesus was not crucified by the Romans but stoned to death by the Jews. In these mutually incompatible assessments of the evidence, the Jesus of history is blurred. Some have said he cannot be recovered at all. But there are grounds for greater confidence.

In this study it has long been recognized that the three synoptic gospels must have pre-eminence for extracting the historical core from the interpretation rather than the gospel of John, which represents theological interpretation, primarily, while preserving the outline of the story. There are other accounts of the lives of teachers in the ancient world which are not unlike the synoptic gospels, but as biographies the gospels omit much that a modern writer would expect to use and to psychologize about. Still, Matthew and Luke record the birth of Jesus and both agree that it was when Herod the Great reigned. Luke also mentions that Caesar Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE) was the ruling Roman emperor, and that a census was held when Quirinius was governor of Syria which necessitated the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. These assertions raise difficult historical questions—as also when these two gospels say that Jesus was miraculously conceived ‘by the Holy Spirit’; and also that he was descended from King David: both assertions have been important for NT Christology. As Herod died in 4 BCE, the date of Jesus' birth was in that year or a little before. (The reckoning as the year 1 AD was a 6th-cent. miscalculation.)

Jesus' family lived at Nazareth, where Joseph worked as a carpenter. This was a useful occupation but it implies that Jesus would not have had the intellectual education so admired by Ben Sirach (Ecclus. [= Sir.] 38: 24), but he did have a gift for vivid and popular speaking.

Much modern scholarship stresses that Jesus must be understood within contemporary Judaism. As a teacher and healer he was a charismatic itinerant leader or a Galilean holy man and millenarian prophet with a call to take up a cross (Mark 8: 134) whose true family are his followers (Luke 8: 21), who broke taboos and promoted an egalitarian programme out of a profound sense of mission, initially prompted by encountering John the Baptist, and well received in a time of social stress. The evidence is against docetism of any kind and clear about Jesus as a human being within the social and religious order of 1st-cent. Palestine. He was unmarried, which was contrary to contemporary expectation, but was not unknown as part of the prophetic ideal, like Elijah.

Jesus' public ministry began when he identified himself with the work of John the Baptist. He then called twelve men to be immediate disciples—not because they were men rather than women (he did not distance himself from women (Luke 8: 2–3), unlike the generality of Jewish teachers) but because they were to correspond to the twelve patriarchs who were the ancestors of the twelve tribes of the old Israel and therefore the foundation of a new community, a ‘new Israel’. As an itinerant teacher in a rural context, Jesus is never recorded as having visited the important town of Sepphoris, not far from Nazareth. (His ministry is not forced by the gospels to conform to the later Church experience of urban settings.) Jesus was a charismatic personality whose authority created a strong impression, and bitter opposition, reinforced by his association with outcasts and pariahs (Luke 15: 2). He did not set out to undermine the Law or ridicule the principles of Judaism: on the contrary, there is no record of his repudiating any of the legislation in the Torah which was the framework for civilized life; he spoke in synagogues (Mark 6: 2) and wore ‘fringes’ (Mark 6: 56), the four blue tassels worn by a Jew in accordance with the Law (Num. 15: 38); but he said that the relief of human need or suffering might override the observance of the Sabbath (Mark. 3: 4; Matt. 12: 3–14). The essence of the Law could be briefly summed up (Matt. 22: 37–9) in the duty to love God and our neighbours and the ‘Golden Rule’ to do to others as you would wish others to do to you (Matt. 7; 12). But he demanded more than his contemporaries: not only neighbours but enemies must be loved (Matt. 5: 44); the rich young ruler must sell everything and follow him (Luke 18: 22). It is an ethic in view of the Kingdom. For the message that Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom of God is coming. Therefore some traditional duties would have to be abandoned (Matt. 8: 21–2). Jesus at no point describes this Kingdom, but it was assumed to refer to the time of deliverance, when the wrongs suffered by the people would be reversed, and a period of justice and peace would be ushered in. The coming of the Kingdom is pictured as in the future—the near future (Mark 1: 15)—and it will be a time of judgement (Matt. 20: 1–16; Luke 12: 16–21; 18: 1–6). Hence the call for repentance, which means not ‘being sorry’ but a change of outlook. Jesus insists also that this coming judgement has already begun (Luke 11: 20): Jesus' own ministry is included within God's plan of salvation. His mission is to show that the eternal Creator and Father is a near and approachable God, and can be known as compassionate and merciful. Those people who acknowledge their need of his grace are welcome into God's covenant. Jesus is God's instrument for bringing the new age in which ritual and ethnic conditions required by Sadducees or Pharisees or Essenes are ignored.

The method of Jesus' teaching included extended parables (there are thirty-nine in the synoptic gospels) and brief proverbial sayings, metaphors and similes, and prophecies. He makes no explicit Messianic claim for himself but his regular use of ‘Son of Man’ is not a denial of such a claim, and unorthodox references to the Temple ensured the hostility of vested interests (Mark 14: 58). The cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11: 15) followed by the withering of the fig tree (symbolizing the nation of Israel) could be interpreted as a Messianic action.

Like many Hellenistic teachers of the period, Jesus is portrayed as a healer and exorcist, but unlike some contemporaries he speaks plainly in his native Aramaic and utters outrageous demands, like Matt. 8: 22, and does not use drugs or charms. The healings are done in a context of prayer (Mark 1: 23) and against an OT background. As an eschatological prophet, Jesus was influenced especially by Isa. 40–66 (e.g. Luke 4: 18–19). Faith is either presupposed by a healing or it is required, and the onlookers are amazed (Mark 5: 1–20). People who were affected by diseases which rendered them ‘unclean’ were welcomed into fellowship with Jesus: it was part of Jesus' revision of current attitudes.

4. The last week

Not surprisingly, then, Jesus excited opposition from the moment he went public (Mark 2: 6–7) and a final fatal clash became inevitable. At a farewell supper with his disciples, sharing bread and wine, Jesus gave his interpretation of his coming death in terms of a new covenant. Yet he had not journeyed to Jerusalem in order deliberately to die; he went in the hope of giving his contemporaries a last chance for a change of mind and to embrace his way of peace (Luke 19: 42), for the long-promised Reign of God had drawn near. The Temple, the special place where God was present amidst his people, would be destroyed (Mark 13: 1–4) and a new faithful people established by the new covenant (Mark 12: 1–9). So if death was to be the end of his journey, then that death could be the means of salvation, ‘a ransom for many’ (Mark 10: 45). The authorities feared his popularity, disbelieved his eschatological message about the Kingdom, and were terrified by his outrageous disturbance in the Temple when the city was crowded with pilgrims for the Passover (Mark 11: 15). The Jewish leaders, angered too by the challenge of some of his implicit claims, resolved to lay a charge against him of inciting to insurrection, which the prefect could not possibly ignore. Thus the death of Jesus by the Roman method of crucifixion was engineered (29/30 CE) on the basis of the very claim which he himself rejected, of aspiring to be a political ‘king’.

The early Christians in their use of Scripture freely applied to Jesus what were used of Yahweh—e.g. Immanuel.

The gospels were not the earliest of the writings of the NT. The epistles of Paul are to be dated ten years at least before the gospel of Mark; and 1 Cor. 15: 3–7 is therefore important testimony to the belief of the first Christians that Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to many of his followers. Many of the details in the accounts of the resurrection are difficult to reconcile, but what happened at Easter that year created a new faith, a new community, a new future.