Understanding Jesus of Nazareth and early Christianity requires knowing the time and place in which Jesus lived and the ideas that were prevalent in his era. Perhaps, that is not enough. Jesus may have thought that he had eternal life and a bond with God from the beginning of creation until the end of times. Therefore, Christians expect him to return. Remarkably, Muhammad and the Jewish prophets did not view themselves in this way.
Jesus started a religion that has 2.2 billion followers today. Another 1.8 billion Muslims expect his return. It is an enigma. Apart from a historical account, a plausible explanation for Jesus’ beliefs may help us to understand him.
The earliest extant sources of Christianity date from decades after Jesus died. Christians first depended on oral traditions and used writings that no longer exist. Oral recounting is notoriously inaccurate, and there is evidence of redactions in the New Testament. And so, scholars agree on very little about Jesus of Nazareth, except that he existed and preached around 26 AD. The search for the historical Jesus has gone a long way.
Around 1760 AD, the German scholar Hermann Samuel Reimarus realised that there is a difference between what Jesus did and preached and what his followers came to believe about him. Reimarus began to investigate the historical Jesus or what Jesus thought and did. He claimed that Jesus lived in the context of first-century Judaism and that he was a typical Jewish apocalyptic prophet of his time.1
Reimarus was a Deist. Deists believe in a Creator and claim that religion requires a rational foundation. Revelation does not come with evidence, so it can never be credible to everyone. For instance, if someone claims to have seen an angel who told him that he is a prophet, then without evidence, he may only convert a few people. People usually are not so easily convinced. And, God created the laws of nature, so God does not need the supernatural to achieve His goals.
Of the accounts of Jesus’ life, much is doubtful. For instance, he probably was not born of a virgin. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke mention the virgin birth, but the accounts differ. And scholars doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead. To Paul, the resurrection was a belief passed on to him. And he does not corroborate the Gospels on this matter. He lists the people who saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) but does not mention any women, the empty tomb, or Joseph of Arimathea. If the accounts diverge so widely, it may be impossible to establish what happened.
So, who was Jesus? When he lived, the apocalypse was in the air. The apocalyptic worldview holds that the end is near, and God will send a messiah to punish the wicked and reward the faithful. Zoroastrianism appears to be the origin of these beliefs. This religion affected Judaism and the Greek and Persian worlds. This shaped Jesus’ thoughts. The end times, the arrival of a messiah, and a final reckoning still define Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking. Jesus probably believed that he was the long-awaited messiah and many people saw him as the future king of Israel (Mark 11:8-10, John 12:12-14). And Jesus may have seen himself in this way too.
Christians believe that Jesus’ kingdom is in heaven and that Jesus never aspired to become a worldly king (John 6:14-15). Meanwhile, the Gospels tell that the Romans crucified him for claiming to be king of the Jews (John 19:19). In the Jewish tradition, there is no such thing as a heavenly king who is not interested in political power. A king governs his people and fights their battles (1 Samuel 8:19-22, Isaiah 11:1-9). He uses his power to subdue rebellions (Psalm 2:9, Genesis 49:10, Numbers 24:8, 1 Samuel 2:10). Crucial in understanding this difference is that Christianity developed, and the gospels were written after the crucifixion when it became clear that Christ did not rule this world. On the other hand, the resurrection made people believe that he had great power in an unseen realm. And so, Christians came to see him as a heavenly ruler.
Jesus and his followers believed that the end was near, perhaps a few years away, but not more than that. And that was 2,000 years ago. Christian sects still proclaim the end of the world from time to time and even set dates. But Jesus did not know God’s plan. He said that only God knows the hour (Mark 13:32). Jesus thought that he was going to save the people of Israel. He did not care much about gentiles. Only tokens of strong faith made him consider their pleas. And Jesus may have had only a few dozen followers, or perhaps a few hundred. That may be why contemporary sources do not mention him.
Jesus did not intend to abolish Jewish law (Matthew 5:17-18), but he preferred substance over adhering to procedure. He was critical of the Pharisees and their obsession with ritual. Jesus was remarkably respectful of women as Jewish culture in the first century AD was patriarchal. Jewish writers in Jesus’ time, for instance, Philo, taught that women should never leave home except to go to the synagogue.
The Gospels of the New Testament more often mention women compared to other texts of the same era. Of all the founders of religions and religious sects, Jesus may have been the only one who did not discriminate against women. Jesus spoke to women in public (Luke 7:11-17), and he was compassionate for them and respected their dignity, even when they were sinners (Luke 7:36-50, John 8:3-11). At this point, Jesus ignored traditional Jewish law. His views on marriage were even more unusual. But why?
The identity of God
The Gospels state that Jesus had a personal and intimate relationship with God. Scholars agree that the Gospels have been edited.
Latest revision: 30 July 2022
Featured image: Jesus and Minas Coptic icon dating from the 6th or 7th century. Clio20 (Anonymous). Wikimedia Commons.
1. Jesus Christ: The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith. J.R. Porter (1999). Duncan Baird Publishers
2. Jesus’ Extraordinary Treatment of Women. Franciscan Media. [link]