Jesus Christ (between 8 and 4 bc-ad 29?), the central figure of Christianity, born in Bethlehem in Judea. The chronology of the Christian era is reckoned from a 6th-century dating of the year of his birth, which is now recognized as being from four to eight years in error.
Christians traditionally regard Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, and as having been divinely conceived by Mary, the wife of Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth. The name Jesus is derived from a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Joshua, or in full Yehoshuah (Yahweh is deliverance).
The title Christ is derived from the Greek christos, a translation of the Hebrew mashiakh (anointed one), or Messiah. “Christ” was used by Jesus’ early followers, who regarded him as the promised deliverer of Israel and later was made part of Jesus’ proper name by the church, which regards him as the redeemer of all humanity.
The principal sources of information concerning Jesus’ life are the Gospels, written in the latter half of the 1st century as the generation that had known Jesus firsthand began to die. The Epistles of Saint Paul and the Acts of the Apostles also contain information about Jesus.
The scantiness of additional source material and the theological nature of biblical records caused some 19th-century biblical scholars to doubt his historical existence. Others, interpreting the available sources in a variety of ways, produced biographies of Jesus in which his life was purged of all supernatural elements.
Today, scholars generally agree that Jesus was a historical figure whose existence is authenticated both by Christian writers and by several Roman and Jewish historians.
Birth and Early Life of Jesus Christ
Two of the Gospels, those of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, provide information about Jesus’ birth and childhood. They also provide genealogies tracing Jesus’ descent through the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and the 10th-century bc king David (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38).
Presumably, the genealogies are offered as proof of Jesus’ messiahship. According to Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:1-2:20), Jesus was miraculously conceived by his mother. He was born in Bethlehem, where Joseph and Mary had gone to comply with the Roman edict of enrollment for the census.
Matthew alone (2:13-23) describes the flight into Egypt, when Joseph and Mary took the child out of reach of the Judean king Herod the Great. Only Luke relates the compliance of Joseph and Mary with the Jewish law, which required circumcision and presentation of the firstborn son at the Temple in Jerusalem (2:21-24).
Luke also describes their later journey (2:41-51) with the young Jesus to the Temple for the Passover feast. The Gospels mention nothing concerning Jesus from the time he was 12 years old until the time he began his public ministry, about 18 years later. See Matthew, Gospel According to; Luke, Gospel According to.
Beginning of His Public Ministry of Jesus Christ
All three Synoptic Gospels (the first three Gospels, so called because they present a similar overall view of the life of Christ) record Jesus’ public ministry as beginning after the imprisonment of John the Baptist, and as lasting for about one year (See also Mark, Gospel According to).
The Gospel According to John describes it as beginning with the choosing of his first disciples (1:40-51), and as lasting for perhaps three years.
The account of the public ministry and immediately preceding events is generally the same in the Synoptic Gospels. Each describes the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Each reports that after the baptism Jesus retired to the neighboring wilderness for a 40-day period of fasting and meditation.
All three synoptists mention that in this period, which some biblical scholars view as a time of ritual preparation, the devil, or Satan, tried to tempt Jesus. Matthew (4:3-9) and Luke (4:3-12) add descriptions of the temptations to which Jesus was subjected.
After Jesus’ baptism and retirement in the wilderness, he returned to Galilee, visited his home in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), where his fellow Nazarenes objected to him, and then moved to Capernaum and began teaching there.
About this time, according to the synoptists, Jesus called his first disciples, “Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother” (Matthew 4:18) and “James the son of Zebedee and John his brother” (Matthew 4:21). Later, as his followers increased in number, Jesus selected 12 disciples to work with him (see Apostle).
Growth of Jesus’ Following
Using Capernaum as a base, Jesus, accompanied by his 12 chosen disciples, traveled to neighboring towns and villages, proclaiming the advent of the kingdom of God, as had many of the Hebrew prophets before him.
When the sick and infirm asked help from him, he sought to heal them by divine power. He stressed the infinite love of God for the humble and weak, and he promised pardon and eternal life in heaven to the most hardened sinners, provided their repentance was sincere.
The essence of these teachings is presented in Matthew 5:1-7:27, in the Sermon on the Mount, containing the Beatitudes (5:3-12) and the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13).
Jesus’ emphasis on moral sincerity rather than strict adherence to religious ritual incurred the enmity of the Pharisees, who feared that his teachings might lead to disregard for the authority of the Law, or Torah.
Others feared that Jesus’ activities and followers might prejudice the Roman authorities against any restoration of the Davidic monarchy.
Despite this growing opposition, Jesus’ popularity increased, especially among social outcasts and the oppressed. Eventually, the enthusiasm of his followers led them to make an attempt to “take him by force, to make him king” (John 6:15).
Jesus, however, frustrated this attempt, withdrawing with his disciples by ship over the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) to Capernaum (John 6:15-21). In Capernaum, he delivered a discourse in which he proclaimed himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35).
This discourse, emphasizing spiritual communion with God, bewildered many in his audience. They thought the discourse a “hard saying” (John 6:60), and thereupon they “drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66).
Jesus then divided his time between travels to cities in and outside the province of Galilee and periods of retreat with his disciples in Bethany (Mark 11:11-12) and Ephraim (John 11:54), two villages near Jerusalem.
The synoptists generally agree that Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee, but John centers Jesus’ public ministry in the province of Judea, reporting that Jesus made numerous visits to Jerusalem.
According to John, his discourses and the miracles he performed at this time—particularly the raising of Lazarus in Bethany (John 11:1-44)—made many people believe in him (John 11:45).
The most significant moment in Jesus’ public ministry, however, was Simon Peter’s realization at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the Christ (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20), although, according to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus had not previously revealed this to Peter or the other disciples.
This revelation and the subsequent prediction by Jesus of his death and resurrection, the conditions of discipleship that he laid down, and his transfiguration (at which time a voice from heaven was heard proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God, thus confirming the revelation) are the primary authority for the claims and historical work of the Christian church. (Explicit authorization by Jesus is recorded in Matthew 16:17-19.)
The Last Days of Jesus Christ
On the approach of Passover, Jesus traveled toward Jerusalem for the last time. (John mentions numerous trips to Jerusalem and more than one Passover, whereas the synoptists roughly divide the public ministry into a Galilean section and a Judean section and record one Passover, which came after Jesus left Galilee for Judea and Jerusalem.)
On the Sunday before the Passover, Jesus entered Jerusalem, where he was met by crowds of people who acclaimed him enthusiastically. There (on Monday and Tuesday, according to the synoptists), he drove from the Temple the traders and moneychangers who, by long-established custom, had been allowed to transact business in the outer court (Mark 11:15-19),
and he disputed with the chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees questions about his authority, tribute to Caesar, and the resurrection. On Tuesday, Jesus also revealed to his disciples the signs that would usher in his Parousia, or second coming. See Second Coming.
On Wednesday, while Jesus was in Bethany, a woman anointed his head with a costly ointment. Jesus interpreted this act as a symbolic preparation for his burial (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9).
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the priests and scribes, concerned that Jesus’ activities would turn the Romans against them and the Jewish people (John 11:48), conspired with Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, to arrest and kill Jesus by stealth, “for they feared the people” (Luke 22:2). John 11:47-53 places the conspiracy before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
On Thursday, Jesus ate the Passover supper with his disciples, and during the meal referred to his imminent betrayal and death as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
In blessing the unleavened bread and wine during the Passover services, he called the bread his body and the wine his “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27), and he bid the disciples partake of each.
This ritual, the Eucharist, has been repeated by Christians ever since and has become the central act of worship in the Christian church.
After the meal Jesus and his disciples went to the Mount of Olives, where, according to Matthew (26:30-32) and Mark (14:26-28), Jesus predicted his resurrection.
Knowing then that the hour of his death was near, Jesus retired to the Garden of Gethsemane, where, “being in agony” (Luke 22:44), he meditated and prayed. A crowd sent by the religious authorities, and led by Judas Iscariot, arrested him in Gethsemane.
Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
According to John (18:13-24), Jesus was brought after his arrest to Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, for a preliminary examination. The synoptists make no mention of this incident: They report only that Jesus was taken to a meeting of the supreme council of the Jews, the Sanhedrin.
At the council meeting, Caiaphas asked Jesus to declare whether he was “the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). Upon his affirmation (Mark 14:62), the council condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy.
Only the Roman procurator, however, was empowered to impose capital punishment, and so, on Friday morning, Jesus was taken before the procurator, Pontius Pilate, for sentencing. Before pronouncing judgment, Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews, and Jesus replied, “You have said so” (Mark 15:2).
Thereafter, Pilate tried several expedients to save Jesus before ultimately leaving the decision to the crowd that gathered. When the crowd insisted on his death, Pilate ordered him executed (Matthew 27:24).
(Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus continues to be debated by historians. The early church tended to place a majority of the blame on the Jews and to deal less harshly with Pilate.)
Jesus was taken to Golgotha and executed by crucifixion, the Roman punishment for political offenders and criminals.
Two robbers were crucified also, one on each side of him. On the cross, above Jesus’ head, “they put the charge against him, which read ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews’” (Matthew 27:37). Late in the day, his body was taken down,
and because of the approach of the Sabbath, when the burial was not permitted, it was hastily laid in a nearby tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. (John 19:39-42 relates that Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus.)
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Early on the following Sunday, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James” (Mark 16:1), going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, found the tomb empty. (Matthew 28:2 reports that an angel appeared after an earthquake and rolled back the stone.)
Inside the tomb, “a young man” (Mark 16:5) clothed in white announced to them that Jesus had risen. (This news is announced by the angel in Matthew 28:5-6 and by two men “in dazzling apparel” in Luke 24:4. According to John 21:11-18, Mary Magdalene saw two angels and then the risen Christ.)
Later on the same day, according to Luke, John, and Mark, Jesus appeared to the women and to other of the disciples at various locations in and around Jerusalem.
Most of the disciples did not doubt that they had again seen and heard the master they had known and followed during the time of his ministry in Galilee and Judea. A few disciples, however, doubted it at first (Matthew 28:17). Thomas, who had not been present at these first appearances, also doubted that Jesus had risen (John 20:24-29).
As recorded in the New Testament, the Resurrection became one of the most compelling doctrines of Christianity, because, according to this doctrine, by rising from the dead, Jesus gave humanity hope of a life after death.
All the Gospels add that, for a brief time after his resurrection, Jesus further instructed his disciples in matters pertaining to the kingdom of God.
He also commissioned them to “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Finally, according to Luke (24:50-51), at Bethany Jesus was seen to ascend into the heavens by his disciples.
Acts 1:2-12 reports that the ascension occurred 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection. The doctrines that Jesus expounded and those concerning him were subsequently developed into the principal tenets of Christian theology.
The life and teachings of Jesus were often matters for dispute and varying interpretation in Christian history. Early in the life of the church, for example, it became necessary to regularize beliefs about Jesus and his role, to aid in conversion and to answer those Christians who adopted views unacceptable to church leaders.
For discussion of some of these questions, see such separate entries as Christology; Incarnation; Trinity. Traditions later coalesced around various events in the life of Christ.