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Article Info:
published: 1/31/05
updated: 5/13/13

The Life of Jesus Christ

The Founder of Christianity

Bellini, Resurrection of Christ
The Resurrection of Christ by Giovanni Bellini.

Christianity was founded on the life and teachings of a Jew named Jesus Christ. The English word "Jesus" comes from the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, a common name which means "savior." "Christ" is a title and it comes from the Greek form of the Hebrew Messiah, meaning "anointed one." Since the time of the earliest Christians, "Christ" has been used both as a surname and as a stand-alone.

Christians believe, and the majority of scholars agree, that Jesus was an actual historical figure. The Christian calendar, in use throughout most of the Western world, centers around the birth of Jesus.

The abbreviation "AD" stands for the Latin anno domini, "in the year of our Lord." Interestingly, Jesus was actually born a few years "Before Christ" (BC) due to a calculation error of the monk (Dionysius Exiguus) who established the Christian calendar in 525 AD. (See a Timeline of Christianity)

The earliest available records of the life of Jesus are the four Gospel narratives, which were written by Jesus' followers within a few decades of his death. A handful of other sources from the first and the second centuries, including Christian, Roman, Jewish, and Gnostic sources, also mention Jesus. The following article is a summary of the life of Jesus according to the Gospel accounts. The "historical Jesus" as investigated by scholars will be treated in a later article. (Also see the New Testament)

Jesus' Birth and Early Life

Jesus was born to a devout Jewess, Mary, and a carpenter named Joseph. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit before the couple had had any sexual relationship. {1}

Matthew and Luke also report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because the Roman emperor had decreed that all families register for a census in their ancestral hometowns. {2} Mark and John do not discuss Jesus' birth; they begin their narratives with Jesus' adulthood.

The Gospels are virtually silent when it comes to Jesus' early life, but some information can be inferred from references elsewhere. Jesus was from a small town called Nazareth {3}, where he probably trained as a carpenter under his father.

Jesus spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, though it seems he knew enough Greek to converse with Roman officials during his ministry.

The Gospel of Luke offers the only account of this period, in which a 12-year old Jesus wanders off from his parents in Jerusalem to discuss religion in the temple. When his frantic parents finally track him down, Jesus asks, "Didn't you know I would be in my Father's house?" {4}

Teaching and Healing Ministry

Jesus reenters the Gospel narratives at about the age of 30 (circa 26 AD). The four gospels agree that Jesus' first act was to be baptized by John the Baptist, a charismatic and ascetic figure who called people to repentance and baptized those who responded. {5} This event marked the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

Christ at Thirty-Three by Heinrich Hofmann.

After the baptism, several of John's followers left to follow Jesus. Jesus then selected several others until he had established a group of 12 disciples. (Two of these disciples, Matthew and John, are the traditional authors of the Gospels that carry their name.)

Jesus then spent from one to three years teaching and working miracles among his disciples and before large crowds. His recorded miracles included turning water to wine, walking on water, cursing a fig tree, healing the sick, multiplying a small meal to feed a crowd, casting out demons, and even raising a man from the dead.

The teachings of Jesus focused primarily on the "the kingdom of God" and were usually relayed through parables drawing on familiar images from agricultural life. He rebuked the hypocrisy of some Jewish leaders and taught the importance of love and kindness, even to one's enemies.

While Jesus' teachings were fundamentally Jewish, they departed significantly from the Jewish law of his day. Perhaps most astonishing of all was that he taught on his own authority. Whereas Jewish prophets had always prefaced their messages with "thus saith the Lord," Jesus said things like, "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'" {7}

Jesus' popularity grew quickly, but so did opposition from local leaders. Roman rulers were uncomfortable with the common perception that he was the Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman rule, while Jewish leaders were disquieted by Jesus' shocking interpretations of Jewish law, his power with the people, and the rumor that he had been alluding to his own divinity.

Ecce Homo by Bosch
Ecce Homo by Bosch (1475-80).

Betrayal and Execution

In the Gospels Jesus repeatedly suggests to his disciples his end is near, but they do not fully understand or accept the idea. The clearest expression of this is at the "Last Supper," which took place on the night before his death. All four Gospels record Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples, asking them to "do this in remembrance of me." {8} Christians celebrate this event in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Communion.

On this evening Jesus also predicts that one of them will betray him, which is met with astonishment and denial. But that very night, Jesus' fate was sealed when Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples and possibly the group's treasurer, led Roman soldiers to Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. As they arrested Jesus, the ever-colorful Peter defended his master with a sword, slicing off the ear of a centurion. But he was rebuked by Jesus, who admonished, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." {9}

Jesus was brought before the Jewish chief priests for trial. When questioned, he said very little but affirmed he was the Messiah. He was then judged worthy of death for blasphemy and handed over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for punishment. Although reluctant to condemn Jesus for reasons not entirely clear, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death at the insistence of the mob that had gathered. According to Matthew, when Judas learned of the sentence he threw his silver coins into the temple and hanged himself. {10}

Bellini, The Dead Christ Supported by Mary and John
The Dead Christ Supported by Mary and John by Giovanni Bellini (1460). Pinoteca Brera, Milan.

Jesus was brutally beaten, clothed in a mock-royal purple robe and crown of thorns, then executed by crucifixion at Golgotha (The Place of the Skull). This method of execution, apparently a Roman invention, entailed nailing or tying the victim's hands and feet to a wooden cross. It produced a slow, painful death by asphyxiation.

The Gospels report that only Jesus' mother and a handful of female disciples were present at the execution. Jesus suffered on the cross for six hours before finally crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and breathing his last. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark report extraordinary events upon Jesus' death - the entire land went dark, there was a great earthquake, the temple curtain was torn in half, and some recent dead came back to life. {11}

The Empty Tomb
Resurrection of Christ
The Appearance Behind Locked Doors
by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308).

Jesus' body was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, and placed in a tomb carved into rock. Again, Jesus' mother and one or two other women were the only ones present. {12} These same devoted women came to his tomb the following Sunday morning to anoint his body with spices. When they arrived, they were astonished to find the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty. {13}

The four Gospels vary somewhat in their reports as to what happened next, but all generally agree that the women told the other disciples but their story was not believed. But the risen Jesus later appeared to the disciples, where he passed through a locked door yet demonstrated he was not a ghost by eating and allowing himself to be touched. {14} He made several other appearances among various groups {15} before ascending into heaven {16}.

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the early church. Historically, it may be impossible to determined what happened or what the disciples actually experienced, but one thing seems clear - they sincerely believed, from an early date, that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

All four Gospels include an account of the resurrection. In Acts, the central message preached by the apostles is the resurrection of Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, which dates to as early as 55 AD, Paul writes that the resurrection is of "first importance" and that "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

The belief that Jesus' resurrection makes it possible for people to have peace with God in this life and meet a favorable end in the next was a major source of the incredible courage shown by the early Christian martyrs.

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  1. Mt 1:18; Lk 1:26-38. Mk and Jn begin their accounts with Jesus' adulthood.
  2. Mt 2:1-12; Lk 2:8-20.
  3. Mt 4:13; Mk 14:67, 16:6; Lk 4:16; Jn 1:46; Ac 24:5.
  4. Lk 2:41-50.
  5. Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-23; Jn 1:29-39.
  6. Later called "adoptionists" or "dynamic monarchians."
  7. Mt 5:27.
  8. Mt 27:17-29; Mk 14:12-25; Lk 22:7-20; Jn 13:1-38.
  9. Mt 26:52.
  10. Mt 27:3-5. See also Ac 1:16-25, in which Judas "fell headlong.".
  11. Mt 27:27-56; Mk 15:16-41; Lk 23:26-49; Jn 19:17-30.
  12. Mt 27:57-66; Mk 15:42-47; Lk 23:50-56; Jn 19:31-42.
  13. Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:1-12; Jn 20:1-10.
  14. Mk 16:14; Lk 24:36-43; Jn 20:19-31, 1 Co 15:5.
  15. Two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32); to Peter in Jerusalem (Lk 24:34; 1 Co 15:5); to seven disciples fishing (Jn 21:1-23); to 11 disciples on a mountain (Mt 28:16-20; Mk 16:15-18)); to more than 500 (1 Co 15:5); to James (1 Co 15:7); at the ascension (Lk 24:44-49; Ac 1:3-8).
  16. Mt 28:16-20; Mk 16:19-20; Lk 24:44-53.

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