Who Was Jesus? Religious, Academic Experts Respond
April 04, 2010
The political environment
Jesus lived during the early Roman Empire, when Augustus and Tiberius ruled. Roman army garrisons were stationed near Judea. King Herod the Great, a reviled figure among the Jewish people at that time, lorded his authority over his subjects.
It was a tense political climate, as evidenced by frequent revolts that led to brutal Roman suppressions. Early in Pontius Pilate's tenure as Roman prefect of Judea, there were mass protests over his army bringing pagan symbols into Jerusalem.
Against this backdrop was the anticipation of the Messiah, a savior who would redeem the people of Israel and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Many people hoped this figure would throw off Roman rule and liberate the Jewish nation.
So it probably went against some expectations when Jesus - after being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist - began preaching a kingdom that was not political, but spiritual, teaching that true liberation came through rejecting sin and turning to God.
"Basically everything he did was to explain what this kingdom was like," Keating said. "The kingdom of God meant the restoration of creation. It's the universe with how God intended it to be."
Jesus' message was revolutionary in the sense that it taught self-sacrifice was the key to happiness, and humility the path to greatness.
"Jesus taught us to love and not just judge," Lima said. "He taught us to give of ourselves and to others."
His was an early voice for social justice, declaring that his real disciples would embrace lepers and other outcasts, as well as clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned and tending to the sick.
"His message was appropriate for the people in the Roman empire who were marginalized, who weren't part of the power elite," Leith said. "He gave them dignity, gave them hope. It was a very inclusive idea of what the world could be like."
The gospels indicate Jesus drew large crowds throughout Galilee and Judea through his preaching and miracles that included many physical healings and other signs such as feeding large crowds of people with small amounts of food.
"One of my favorite images is Jesus feeding the multitude of 5,000," Leith said. "It was this idea that in the kingdom of God, nobody will ever be hungry. It was a very vivid image for people living in the ancient world."
But apart from his preaching and miracles, Christians see his willingness to die a shameful death on a cross to paradoxically be his crowning achievement. The crucifixion is seen as Jesus acting in a high priest role, sacrificing himself for the sanctification of God's people.
"Can you imagine being a man knowing that what the end of life on Earth had in store for you was the cross?" Lima said. "His goal was to get to that cross."
Through the centuries
It is historically accepted that Jesus died by crucifixion. All four gospels mention it, as do the Jewish historian Josephus and Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian who wrote in 116 AD that the early Christians worshipped a "Chrestus" who suffered "the extreme penalty" at the hands of Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius.
It is an article of faith for most Christians that Jesus was resurrected three days after his death and appeared to as many as 500 disciples before ascending to Heaven with the physical body of a Jewish man.
The ancient sources do show that many of his early followers believed in the resurrection and worshipped Jesus as they would the God of the Hebrew Bible.
Ignatius of Antioch, an early bishop, wrote several letters before his death in 117 AD in which he referred to the "Lord Jesus Christ" who had been "with the Father from the beginning."
Writing within the first three decades of Jesus' death, Paul of Tarsus - who claimed to have encountered the risen Jesus - wrote several letters to Christian communities in Greece, Asia Minor and Rome that illustrate the early disciples would have recognized Jesus being called the Son of God.
"Paul is writing before the gospels are written down, and it is already clear as a bell that Jesus is seen to have a distinct relationship with God the Father, which allows his death to undo the sin of Adam," Keating said.
Leith said the gospels - written between 40 to 70 years after Jesus' death - illustrate a "Christology" that develops around Jesus. In Mark, the first gospel written in 70 AD, Jesus is proclaimed to be the Son of God after his baptism.
In John's gospel, written at the end of the first century, Jesus is the eternal Word of God that existed before creation.
"You're seeing people thinking about Jesus, talking about Jesus, coming to new realizations and new understandings of him through their lived experiences of him in their lives," Leith said.
But as the centuries passed, fierce debates grew within the church about exactly who Jesus was. Some said he was a pure spirit disguised in human form. Others said Jesus did not come into existence until God the Father created him, resulting in many clashes throughout the Roman world.
"When Greek philosophical categories came in, people began having questions about whether Jesus felt pain, whether he had a real body or not," Keating said. "These had to get answered in conciliar forums. It was about explaining what would be the authoritative telling of the story of Jesus."
Leith said political pressure played a significant role in defining the doctrines about Jesus. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in 313 AD, convened the Council of Nicea in 325 to settle the disputes of Jesus' human and divine natures. The council adopted the first official, uniform Christian doctrine that Jesus was human and divine.
Leith said the proto-orthodox group - the forerunners of modern Christianity - had the emperor's ear.
"It was important for Constantine to have peace and a uniform creed for the entire empire," she said.
Meanwhile, other scholars, theologians and pastors acknowledge the political factors, but say the church's councils primarily focused on refining the earliest traditions and understandings held by the first Christians.
"When you review the councils, they always go back to the original revelation and do not create their own," Oliveira said.
The councils canonized the New Testament and discarded early writings such as the Gnostic gospels that did not affirm the greater Christian community's beliefs about Jesus. Keating said those writings, as well as the gospels of Judas and Thomas, did not synchronize with the Hebrew scriptures.
"The problem with those other gospels is that they don't appear very Jewish," Keating said. "The only way they could have historical credibility is if they reflected some basis of knowledge of that time and place. The canonical gospels have a lot more of that."
Spreading the word
Jesus' followers went on to evangelize large swaths of the globe, today totaling around 2 billion Christians. Jesus has become a central figure in world history, even though he never owned property or led conquering armies.
"Unlike the great earthly kings, he comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey," Bebis said.
Honest Christians will acknowledge that people have committed atrocities and waged wars in the name of Jesus. But they will also say that those actions were perversions of the gospels, and that the message continues to change lives for the better.
"We believe he had the ultimate impact," Oliveira said. "His impact would be eternity."
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