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JEWS, ROME and JESUS (1 of 5)

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Jewish Revolts and Christian Identities

The Historical Jesus of Nazareth | Early Christianity and its Apostles | Jewish Rebellion and Christian Identity, to Masada | More Jewish Revolts, Bar Kokhba and Dispersals | Christianity Creates Hierarchies and Orthodoxy

The Historical Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus left no writings, and known written descriptions of his life and what he said came decades after his death. These were to become known as the Gospels – a part of Christianity's New Testament – traditionally believed to have been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some scholars believe the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written between the years 70 and 100 and the Gospel of John between 90 and 110. Some others speculate that the Gospels may have originated as late as the year 140.

Matthew describes Jesus as having been born before the death of Herod the Great, which came in 4 BCE. Luke's account has Jesus born during or after the year 6 CE. According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem – a village ten miles south of Jerusalem – a claim that might have been made to match Jesus with a prophecy in the book of Micah (5:2), where it was said that from Bethlehem one would go forth to become a ruler of Israel. But it is believed that Jesus may have been born in Galilee, in a village called Nazareth, where Jesus is said to have lived as a youth.

It appears that as a young man Jesus worked at what was then considered a humble occupation: carpentry. The educated around him spoke Greek, while Jesus spoke Aramaic.

The Gospel of John, describes Jesus as having become a follower of the preacher John the Baptist and as having begun his own ministry before John the Baptist's imprisonment. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke describe Jesus as beginning his ministry after John the Baptist's imprisonment. According to the Gospels, the neighbors of Jesus and his brother John saw Jesus' attempt to fill in for the loss of John the Baptist as presumptuous, and they rejected him. According to the Book of Matthew, rather than see himself as the predestined leader of John's movement, Jesus denied that he was equal to John. He said that "among those born of women there has not yet arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist" note12    [ reader comment ]

The Gospels describe Jesus as preaching in rural towns and villages for three years, and they describe his message as close to that of the Essenes and John the Baptist. Jesus denounced spiritual corruption that pervaded Jewish society, and he disliked the ways of the well-to-do. According to the Gospels he advocated the sharing of possessions. If a man asks for your shirt, he is reported to have said, give your shirt and your coat too. He warned against serving two masters: God and mammon. He preached against the wearing of soft clothing, and he called upon his disciples to follow an ascetic life, to refrain from acquiring gold and silver for their money belts or bag for a journey. note13

"Woe to you who are rich," he said, "for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed, for you shall be hungry." note14

Like the Essenes and John the Baptist, Jesus was a devout Jew. He claimed that he had come to fulfill Judaic law and the word of the prophets, and he preached in Synagogues. Like the Essenes and John the Baptist, he spoke of a kingdom of heaven that was at hand. And like the Essenes he described his generation as evil and adulterous. He admonished his listeners to refrain from divorce and said that for a man to marry a divorced woman was to make that woman commit adultery. He commanded his listeners to follow the commandments of God. And, like the old prophets, he preached that foreign ways were evil and warned his listeners not to go the way of foreigners (gentiles).

Judaic law was complex, and some of Judaism's rituals were expensive, and, being bold enough to condemn the rest of society as corrupt, Jesus was also bold enough to ignore those laws that he thought impractical. According to the Gospels (written when Christians were themselves diverging from some Judaic laws), Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their impractical attempt at exactitude. Jesus, according to the Gospels, saw absurdity in their selecting to refrain from certain works on the Sabbath and not other works. Of those who criticized him for healing on the Sabbath he asked, "Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him?" note15

According to the Gospels, Jesus defended the common Jew's belief in the resurrection – in contrast to the Sadducees, who rejected resurrection. A Sadducee pointed out to Jesus that under Judaic law widows married their late husband's brother and that with resurrection would come confusion when the husband returned from the dead. Jesus, according to Mathew 22:30, replied that after resurrection there would be no marriage because people would be like angels in heaven.

The Gospels describe Jesus as claiming that his mission empowered him to forgive sins, a claim the Pharisees would have seen as a blasphemous usurpation of God's divine authority and an infringement upon monotheism. The Gospels also describe Jesus as healing people by casting out demons from within them and turning five loaves of bread into enough bread to feed and satisfy five thousand – a performance that should have convinced any Pharisee or other observers that Jesus had divine powers.

Jesus Goes to Jerusalem

According to the Gospels, when Jesus heard the news that John the Baptist had been executed (while imprisoned) he became angered. This came with the approach of the annual pilgrimage to Judaism's holy city, Jerusalem. The focus of the pilgrimage was Jerusalem's temple, the "House of the Lord." It was a pilgrimage that celebrated the Passover holiday commemorating liberation of Jews from Egyptian slavery. Jesus and his followers joined perhaps as many as a hundred thousand pilgrims who had poured into Jerusalem from nearby and from outside Judea – doubling the number of people in the city. Jesus may or may not have gone to Jerusalem with confrontation on his mind, but in Jerusalem he created a disturbance. At the temple were merchants who sold the animals and birds accepted by Jews as suitable for temple sacrifices, and among the merchants were money changers who made it possible for people from the different areas to acquire the necessary coins to buy these creatures. Jesus, according to the Matthew 21:13, accused the merchants and money changers as having turned the temple from a "House of Prayer" into a "robber's den," and he made a whip out of cords he had gathered and drove the merchants and money changers from the temple grounds.

The Death of Resurrection of Jesus

The gathering crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover always heightened the spirit of nationalism there. On such occasions, joy was in the air and an increased tension, and those who made street corner speeches found audiences for their passionate denunciations, including denunciations of Jerusalem's priestly city fathers, the Sadducees. The rebellious outbursts upset the Sadducees, and they must have been offended by the disturbance that Jesus had created.

After his revolt at the temple, Jesus sensed that he was in danger, but rather than go into hiding he let himself be arrested. His followers are described as less brazen: they deserted Jesus, including one called Peter who denied to authorities that he knew Jesus.

Jesus was taken before a political council called the Sanhedrin, presided over by Jerusalem's High Priest, Caiaphas. The punishment for intending to foment rebellion or for committing blasphemy could be death, and executions for these offenses were routine in Judea. Each of the four Gospels describes the Sanhedrin as having accused Jesus of claiming to be the "king of the Jews," and John 4:26 describes Jesus as claiming that he was the Messiah. This would have been grounds for the charge of blasphemy. The usual method of execution for blasphemy was stoning, and the usual method of execution for treason or insurrection was crucifixion. According to the Gospels, crucifixion was chosen for Jesus, which fits with Jesus not having claimed to be a god or the Messiah. It was also a sentence that would be better than stoning for artistic depictions of martyrdom.

The Gospels describe Jesus as having been placed on a cross between two thieves who tossed insults at him. According to the Gospels, a crowd mocked Jesus while he was on the cross, and a priest joked that Jesus had claimed to save others but apparently could not save himself. Among the followers of Jesus who were present no one dared expose himself as such. And, according to Matthew 27:46, Jesus did not yet understand the reason for his death, for, while dying in the dark, Jesus asked aloud "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

The Gospels describe the body of Jesus as disappearing from its tomb, and they describe Jesus as descending from heaven and appearing before a select few of his followers on a mountain in Galilee. Now the followers had the answer to the question Jesus had asked on the cross. It was to some extent an idea that had been part of their culture: Jesus had died in accordance with a ritual that had been common among the Jews, which was death for someone or an animal that covered for the sins of the people in the community. In a word: sacrifice. 

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