Who Was Jesus? Religious, Academic Experts Respond
April 04, 2010
By Brian Fraga
New Bedford Standard Times
A Jewish carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago in an obscure village in a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire is being celebrated today by Christians as the risen Messiah, the savior of the world.
Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed by believers to be divine - the all-powerful Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures who became a man, preached the kingdom of God and redeemed humanity by dying on a cross before coming back to life and ascending to Heaven.
"It is an amazing story," said the Rev. Constantine Bebis, pastor of the St. George Greek Orthodox Church in North Dartmouth.
"Here was a Jewish boy who grew up in Galilee in the first century and went on to become so famous just from what he did in a few short years."
The story is so familiar, and with the many theological doctrines that have developed over the centuries, it is easy to forget that even secular scholars believe Jesus was an actual human being who apparently lived the usual life of a Jewish peasant in 1st century Palestine.
"He probably came from humble and ordinary circumstances," said the Rev. Gregory Mathias, pastor of St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Dartmouth.
The four canonical gospels are the main sources for the life of Jesus, but they include theological reflections of his sayings and deeds that sought to prove his salvific role in history. The gospels were not meant to be detached news accounts.
"We have no evidence of the actual Jesus," said Mary Joan Winn Leith [pictured above], a religious studies professor at Stonehill College in Easton. She specified that she was speaking as a historian and an archaeologist in differentiating between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
"I believe they are quite different, with some standard connecting threads," she said. "But we have no other documents or videos outside the gospels that mention him or anything."
For Christians, Jesus cannot be understood apart from his religious nature.
"The Bible tells us Jesus came to us to teach us and reveal to us the truth," said the Rev. David Lima, executive minister of the Inter-Church Council of Greater New Bedford.
"To speak from a historical standpoint alone misses the point," said the Rev. Robert Oliveira, pastor of Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Bedford.
"Jesus is looked at through the lenses of faith as someone who transforms history, lives and individuals," Oliveira said.
"On the whole, the gospels are basically historically trustworthy," said James Keating, a professor of theology at Providence College. "But at the same time, they are not modern historical biographies. They are the account of the life, deeds and faith of this one person, presented as good news."
Fitting Jesus into his times
The gospels do not shed much light on Jesus' formative years. The evangelists Matthew and Luke mention his birth, presentation in the Temple, his family's flight into Egypt and an episode where a 12-year-old Jesus surprises the Temple elders with his knowledge of the scriptures.
But the gaps in his early life are large, and nothing is said of what Jesus did for 18 years before he began his public ministry at age 30. Some call this period Jesus' hidden life. Oliveira said the silence of those years speaks to a "certain boldness."
"Look at how he turned out," Oliveira said. "He was a man raised in compassion, and taught to have an understanding heart and an openness of spirit to what God expected him to be."
Scholars have been able to reconstruct the culture in Galilee 2,000 years ago, thus giving the modern mind some insights into what everyday life would have been like for someone in Jesus' social class.
"He would have been an observant Jew for sure," said Keating of Providence College. "He would have observed the Mosaic law and dietary restrictions. He probably didn't have any formal education, or if he did, it was probably in the local synagogue."
Leith, the Stonehill professor, said Jesus would have been exposed to a rural, provincial Judaism.
"He was a peasant," she said. "We don't know if he could read or write. He was from rural Galilee. Nazareth was a one-stop town. He probably grew up typically in a rural family that would have been really poor."
The gospels indicate Jesus' adoptive father, Joseph, was a handyman, possibly a carpenter or stonemason. In those days, a son often took up his father's trade, indicating that Jesus would have been well-acquainted with manual labor.
The gospels also say that Joseph descended from King David, which was meant to indicate that Jesus was born into a royal lineage that fulfilled messianic prophecies.
Jesus would have primarily spoken Aramaic, and probably knew Hebrew from attending religious services. Historians speculate he might have had at least a working knowledge of Greek, which was the unofficial language of the empire in that region.
"It's possible Jesus may have worked in Sepphoris, a city close to Nazareth, so he would have probably picked up some Greek to understand the orders that the foremen would have been barking out," Keating said.
As was the norm at the time, Jesus might have grown up in a large extended family that would have included aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces.
The gospels mention that some of his relatives were confused by Jesus' ministry, indicating that his life had been regular up until then. Luke's gospel indicates people were taken aback when he took the seat in the local synagogue assigned to the messiah.
"The people were shocked, so it would seem he hadn't shown signs of that before," said Richard Pimentel, an Evangelical Christian and member of New Seasons Worship Center in Freetown.
Jesus would have looked Semitic, even Arabic, scholars say. He most likely had olive-colored skin and dark hair as opposed to the Germanic fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus portrayed in popular art.
The faint image of a man in the Shroud of Turin - believed by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus - might have influenced early attempts to portray him. The image is of a crucified man with a beard and long hair.