October 03, 2018

Who was Jesus?

The Challenge

One cannot write a novel about the life of Jesus without treading on very sacred ground:  the Gospels. This potential conflict presents us with a conundrum.  Should we try to follow the story line and text found in the Gospels? Or is it better to write a contemporary story for a 21st century audience? Do we confine ourselves to the limitations of first century knowledge? Or is it better to update the story with currently available technical, historical and archeological information?

While 25 percent of the American audience is adamant we cannot dispute what has been written in the Biblical Gospels in any way, the other 75 percent of the American population either prefers a compelling and credible story, or rejects Christianity.

What would Christ do?

Would he abandon the 75 percent? Would he ignore the accumulation of human knowledge? Or would he seek to deliver God’s message in terms that are harmonious with the spiritual yearning of a 21st century population? The answer is easy. He would reach out to the 75 percent. He set the example during his ministry.

We are being challenged. If we wish to increase the positive and constructive influence of Jesus Christ among the majority of western populations, we must present our readers with a sensitive and credible portrayal of his life. Let us use 21st century language and human knowledge to bring him to the reader.

Gospel Traditions

The Gospels were not intended to be historical texts. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were written to present a narrative of personalities, events and doctrine from the viewpoint of the respective authors.

There was a young man named Mark who was a relative of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. Peter’s wife was Mark’s sister. After Mark’s father died, Peter became a surrogate father, and would always regard the youngster as his son. Mark’s mother was destined to become a prominent member of the first Christian congregation in Jerusalem. Mark would have known the Apostles, and was a witness to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.

Mark accompanied Peter on his early travels to spread the word of Christ. He later became the faithful companion of the apostle Paul, and was a witness to the execution of both St. Paul and St. Peter (64 – 67 AD?) in Rome.

By tradition, Mark wrote down the notes and passages of the book that would bear his name from ~ 45 to ~ 60 A.D. He characterizes Jesus as a powerful and earnestly suffering servant of God. We see Christ as a human being. He reacts to the crowds that gather to hear him. He has both intellect and emotions. Mark wants to give Roman Christians a book of faith and so he focuses on what he had witnessed or learned from Peter – the Galilean ministry and last week of Christ.

Initial versions of the Book of Mark were completed by 70 AD. The final version of the Book of Mark was compiled and edited after his death. It includes some new text (most notably to ensure Jesus is seen as a prophet), and adds verses 9 – 20 which describe the message and revelation of Jesus.

Matthew tried to prove Jesus was the (Jewish) Messiah. Not only did he fail, in his narrative we meet a Jesus who has attributes found in the Old Testament. Although I love Matthew’s story, and the music and words it has inspired, his reliance on fiction and mythology is a disappointment.

Under contract with the Romans to collect taxes in Capernaum, Matthew was also known as Levi the publican (tax collector). Relatively wealthy, he was summoned by Jesus to be one of the 12 apostles. With the exception of the gospel that bears his name, we know little about Matthew. Tax collectors were held in low regard by other Jews. His identity and activity are not mentioned in Mark, Luke or Acts. His name does not appear in John.

The initial version of Matthew was completed by ~ 85 A.D. It was written by a second generation Jewish Christian. He used his knowledge of Matthew, along with material from the book of Mark, text identified as written by Q, and oral tradition, to carry the message of Jesus to the Jews. The author of Matthew is on a mission. He wants to convince the Jews that Jesus is actually the Messiah described in the Old Testament. In order to do this, the life of Jesus must fulfill all the Biblical prophecies about the coming of a Messiah.

Using material from earlier versions of Mark, the works of an author called Q by historians, and other sources, Luke completed his initial text by ~85 A.D. Luke was a Greek doctor and a close friend of the Apostle Paul. He knew Peter and was able to interview witnesses to the ministry of Jesus. Luke was inspired by what he experienced. He wants to bring the story of Jesus to a Greek audience. Luke portrays a very spiritual Jesus. The savior of mankind is wise, compassionate, and a good teacher. Women play a more prominent role in Luke’s portrayal of the events surrounding the life of Christ. He is careful with the sequence of events. Luke often explains Jewish customs. After writing the Book of Luke about the life of Christ, Luke characterized the first 30 years of Church history in the Book of Acts.

Matthew was intent on portraying Jesus as the Messiah foretold by Jewish prophets. Mark wanted to record the ministry and passion of Christ for Greek speaking Romans. Luke addressed his efforts to a Greek population. The Book of John, by contrast, is a book of faith for gentile Christians. It was written by three authors who made their contributions from ~ 90 – ~ 110 A.D. (or as early as 70 – 90 A.D.) They emphasize that Jesus is the Son of God, an eternal deity, who has been sent by God to deliver a message: “If you believe in me, you shall have eternal life.” The Book of John presents this message within the context of a series of conversations Jesus has with others.

The Apostle John had been a follower of John the Baptist before becoming a follower of Christ. John stayed in Judea until the Apostles were forced to flee to the various provinces of the Roman Empire during the persecution of Herod Agrippa in 43 A.D. By tradition, the Apostle John provided a theological foundation for the book that bears his name.

What Can We Add?

There is More to the Story
The Gospels have been a rich source of inspiration, comfort and instruction for more than 1600 years. They tell the story and describe the message of a remarkable man. But we can enhance the story found in the Gospels. It is possible to create a credible and historically accurate portrayal of his occupation and teaching that includes cultural context; descriptions of the geography, towns, and temples he would have known; narratives about real events; information about his family and family life; and a plausible image of his persona. We can develop a likely story about the life of Jesus before he is ready to start his ministry, including his marriage. We can present an internally consistent story with a credible sequence of events. One can add these elements to our narrative of his life by reviewing 1st century historical and archaeological information, gleaning relevant material from the Gospels, and doing a little deductive reasoning. What emerges is a powerful story about a man we can identify as God’s son, the mission God gave to him, and his incredible devotion to the Father he wants us to love.

Flavius Josephus
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus gives us a very unflattering description of Jesus in his "Testimonium Flavianum". Allied with the Romans, Flavius Josephus wants to downgrade the importance of Jesus whom he regarded as a Jewish rebel. Robert Eisler (27 April 1882 – 17 December 1949), an Austrian Jewish historian and Biblical scholar, was able to reconstruct an unaltered Old Russian translation that preserved the original Greek text.

“At that time also there appeared a certain man of magic power … if we can call him a man, [whose name is Jesus], whom [certain] Greeks call a son of [a] God, but his disciples [call] the true prophet … he was a man of simple appearance, mature age, black-skinned, short growth, three cubits tall (54 - 56 inches), hunchbacked, a long nose, eyebrows meeting above the nose … with scanty [curly] hair, but having a line in the middle of the head after the fashion of the Nazoreans, with an undeveloped beard.”

This awful description was later censored and altered by various Christian authors. For Josephus, the words “simple appearance” demotes Jesus to the status of an ordinary peasant. “Mature age” means he is an old man whose babble can be disregarded.

Flavius Josephus describes Jesus in ugly terms. It is interesting to note, however, that according to him the disciples apparently looked upon Jesus as a Prophet, while after his death the Gospels clearly look upon Jesus as the son of God.

A Credible Physical Description
Our middle eastern ancestors were not very tall by modern standards. Malnutrition, frequent famine, debilitating disease, a grain based diet, and a lack of protein impeded early human growth. It is likely Jesus was between 5’4” and 5’7”tall (for some reason 5’6” seems appropriate). Although he could have been muscular like many Roman soldiers (about 170 pounds), it is more likely he had a medium build of about 155 pounds. It is likely Jesus had a thick beard (not very long) and thinning hair (diet again?). Given the geographic latitude within which his family lived, it is likely Jesus had brown eyes, brown hair, and his skin was the color of almond shells. Mary his mother, by the way, was probably between 5’1” and 5’3” tall.

Although as a practical matter Jesus typically dressed like most of his peasant and fisherman friends, he could afford the more refined textiles of upper class Jews. This is one of the reasons he could move so easily among them whenever the occasion arose. Tradition tells us he was also reasonably well dressed when he spoke to the multitude. In the strict class conscious social structure of the Roman era, proper dress was expected.

Much is made of his being a simple carpenter who worked in the poor hamlet of Nazareth (population of less than 500) and later in Capernaum (population of perhaps 1500). It is more likely Jesus was a relatively well-off carpenter and a stone mason (most buildings and public works projects were constructed of stone). Assuming he was a reasonably skilled craftsman, he would be able to make more money than 80 percent of his (largely peasant) Jewish peers. The Romans needed thousands of skilled artisans for their perpetual (mostly stone) building projects. Wealthy Jews needed homes and furniture. Fishermen needed boats and oars. Traders needed carts... and so on. Although there would have been little work available to him in the village of Nazareth, there was plenty to do in nearby Sepphoris which the Romans began to rebuild as a provincial capital in 3 A.D.; and (later in his life) in Capernaum which was a way stop on the trading route between Damascus Syria and towns to the west and south. He may also have worked in Tiberius when the Romans established the Capital of Galilee there. It was not unusual for artisans to move from job to job. Jesus had little problem finding lucrative employment. It is likely Jesus could afford to own a modest house, perhaps some land to farm, and the tools of his trade.

Although there were some schools for boys in larger cities, it is unlikely there were any formal education opportunities in Nazareth. The local Rabbi would be the community’s only teacher. Thus Jesus would have been (like his remarkable mother) largely self-educated. He spoke Aramaic, the prevailing language in ancient Israel. It is likely he also could speak and understand some Koine Greek, which was the language of commerce and medicine. According to the Gospels, Jesus could read Jewish manuscripts. In order to pursue his trade, Jesus would have been required to perform simple mathematical calculations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), and apply the rules of basic geometry.

This means he was more erudite than 85 percent of his peasant peers, who typically could not read or write (more than a few words). Jesus also demonstrated his intelligence by developing a thoughtful philosophy of life and a new theology. Although both are based on prior doctrine, Jesus molded them in new ways. In addition, the depth of his intelligence is revealed by the wisdom of his teaching and his quick responses to those who challenged his teaching.

And of course, we have to ask what would God want? Jesus would need to be very intelligent in order to pursue the mission God gave to him. I chose to believe God gave Jesus the DNA for high intelligence.

Jesus was very creative. He brought God’s message to the people of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Perea, Caesarea, Decapolis, and Syrian Phoenicia through the use of parables, metaphors, proverbs, and sermons. Most of them were his own creations. He taught us to embrace a constructive theology, to have compassion for others, to follow the wisdom of God’s values, and to seek the reward of everlasting life. His words inspire a nobility of purpose, the courage of a positive faith, and the comfort of spiritual peace. His creativity is further illustrated by his quick responses to those who challenged his teaching.

God obviously wanted Jesus to live a natural human life in order to prepare him for his ministry. One can acquire an intellectual understanding of theology through study, but in order to value the deeply emotional significance of theological concepts one must live them.

The compassion of God’s son is exemplified by his counterculture love for children (who were typically restricted from contact with a teacher), and his equally counterculture treatment of women (whom he regarded as being equal). During his ministry, Jesus repeatedly demonstrated his compassion for the sick and injured, as well as those suffering from the loss of a loved one. Love and compassion are fundamental concepts in the message Jesus brings to us.

Jesus is very charismatic; those who look upon him feel compelled to admire him. When he looks at you, his brown eyes penetrate into the deepest regions of your soul. It is impossible to deny a connection; one spirit with another. In an instant, he knows all about you. His love surges through you. The feeling of joy is unmistakable.

Jesus has the natural energy of a leader we can trust. Quick of step, he walks with the determined purpose of a man on a mission. Serious of demeanor, quick to anger, one dare not challenge him. But this complex man also has a capacity for empathy and compassion that appear to be boundless.

His passionate demeanor holds the attention of those who congregate to hear him speak. Jesus presents his message with clarity, simplicity, and authority. Here is a man who is obviously close to God. We want to be close to him. Sage, charismatic healer, philosopher, teacher, and social reformer, Jesus offers a new conception of humanity. There is, he reveals, a spiritual future for the individual that will be free from the disease, poverty, oppression, hatred, and isolation of this life.

The Bible relies on the word “miracle” to describe his healing powers. Far too often. For many people, the associated mythology is hard to believe.

It turns out that many of the miracles could have been the result of faith healing or the use of contemporary 1st century medical knowledge, supplemented from time to time with help from God. We can chose to believe an inquisitive and intelligent Jesus knew healing would be fundamental to the success of his ministry, and it is plausible Jesus learned all he could about contemporary 1st century medicine during his years of preparation.


Jesus did not live in a vacuum, he was not a recluse, and he was certainly influenced by the Jewish culture within which he lived. Women played a significant role in his life. As expected by the people of his community - he was married. Although a rebellious Jesus entertained thoughts of joining the revolt against Roman oppression, he concluded God had given him a far more important mission. His intellectual capability enabled him to be comfortable with all people - whether rich, poor, educated, illiterate, healthy, or sick. It is likely he used his occupational skills to earn just enough money to satisfy his personal needs and to help support his family. A 31 year old Jesus is called to a ministry that will result in his death and resurrection.

Jesus the prophet and rabbi was a mature, culturally aware, intelligent, creative, compassionate, and charismatic man. He reacts to the crowds that gather to hear him. The savior of mankind is a good teacher. He has both intellect and emotions. To his religious peers, Jesus was a blasphemer and a heretic. But with God’s help, he developed a theology and a philosophy of life that was destined to capture the imagination of more than a billion people.

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