From a purely secularist point of view, Jesus Christ is still the single most important figure in human history. Despite the number of moslems in the world, Christ has manifestly affected more people and countries throughout history.
So let’s look at the real Jesus and see what we can make of Him. For a start, He was historically proveable, He is mentioned by a number of non-Christian sources of the time: Thallus 52AD, Cornelius Tacitus 125AD, Mara Bar-Serapion 70AD, Phlegon (80-140AD), Pliny the Younger (61-113AD), Suetonius (69-140AD), Lucian of Samosata: (115-200 A.D.), Celsus (175AD), Josephus (37-101AD), even the Jewish Talmud includes the ancient writing: “It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. ……. and they hanged him on the day before the Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a)
All these tell us that there was an historical Jesus, and more to the point, they testify, if you read them, to a number of crucial points about Jesus and His followers. That Jesus lived in Judea, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and had followers who were persecuted for their faith in Christ. He was wise and well-known and died for His teachings, that the Jewish leadership was responsible for His death and that His followers adopted His teachings. He lived, was crucified, and there was an earthquake and darkness at the point of His crucifixion, He had the ability to accurately predict the future, was crucified in the reign of Tiberius Caesar and showed His wounds after He was came back. His followers believed He was God, and met regularly to worship Jesus. Their commitment to their belief that Jesus was God was extremely strong. He taught about repentance, He lived in Palestine, worked amazing miracles, was accused by the Jews, crucified under Pilate and had followers called Christians. He had disciples who were martyred for their faith (one of whom was named Matthai), and was executed on the day before the Passover.
That’s a lot of outside near contemporary correlation of what the Church was teaching about Jesus. So it seems reasonable for us to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person.
JESUS IN CONTEXT
Jesus was the leader, the central figure of a group of men who were all loosely connected by family, social or business situations.
At some point, maybe in his late twenties, Jesus left His family business – which was probably house-building, but could have been plain carpentry since the word is the same for both professions, and set about gathering a group of followers. From the accounts that we have He probably started this before He began public preaching.
Certainly He appears to have watched Saint John the Baptist’s ministry (for he was the Forerunner), possibly just as someone who was there in the crowd, however being there, He had certainly come to Saint John’s attention, enough for Saint John to understand that He was indeed different. Saint John recognised by Divine inspiration, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah long before any other person. But Saint John still required that Jesus Himself should state this, hence his follower’s questions to Jesus (Matt 11).
Jesus began His own ministry a little later, attracting fairly early on some of Saint John’s people – probably at Saint John’s direction.
Jesus taught differently though, unlike Saint John, Jesus taught as someone having real personal authority, and in some ways, His teaching was radical – at least in the eyes of those in religious or political positions. It was essentially however radical in its teaching of love of God and love for one’s fellow man.
The radical challenge that Jesus posed to Judaism was a new relationship of God to the people which would seem to eliminate – or decrease – the need for the great structure that Judaism had built up. Jesus gave everyone the right to address God as Father, because He Himself was God, He knew intimately the relationship that God wanted with His people. This however meant that the chief priests and their friends had reason to think that Jesus’ approach threatened their own status as intermediaries. Indeed, for centuries it was the Prophets and priests of Judaism who had talked to God on behalf of the people.
Then there was Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple of those who sold Temple money for ordinary money, which could well have been the final straw – this was a very profitable business. His stating that His doctrines would set family member against family member would have aroused worry amongst the establishment as to what He was planning – was it an insurrection as others had already tried?
The charges brought against Jesus by the Sanhedrin of those days imply that Jesus’ mission was very far from a failure since significant numbers of people, including some influential people, had accepted that Jesus was indeed a prophet, perhaps even the Messiah for whom they had long been waiting. He may have had around five hundred followers with groups in existence from Tyre to Jerusalem, and while we know of at least one member from the Sanhedrin, there are stories of others from the Sadducees, Pharisees etc.
So Jesus would be a problem to the government from both religious and political points of view. With the major groupings in Israel at the time – the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, all having different perspectives on Judaism, this was a context in which religion and politics were intertwined in a very complex way.
Israel was not isolated – it was part of the Roman Empire with the Jewish diaspora spreading from Alexandria through Greece to Rome and Odessa, travellers were constantly coming and going and pilgrims came in in large numbers to visit the temple, so they were not in some isolated Jewish context without external influences.
Add to that the fact that many Jews living outside of Israel – especially in modern-day Turkey were in close contact with the Galatian Druids whose five hundred year period was coming to a close and their prophecy that a great king would arise (hence the Magi). All Israel was in some turmoil about the Roman occupation and the ideas of some other societies in the area reinforced this, with the result that the number of wandering Rabbis and revolutionaries was increasing. This was quite rightly seen by many particularly religious people, as the world coming to some sort of significant turning point: The Jews expecting the Messiah imminently, the Druids expecting a great king to arise somewhere and the Romans paranoically trying to hold their empire together, while the Jewish king, knowing all this worried that he would be displaced and the Jewish religious leaders likewise.
Jesus disciples then, lived in this world. They were variously fishermen – that is, loosely related men working their business together, and other men of business such as Matthew, or Luke the physician. Peter was at least as well-off as Jesus’ own builder family was. They lived in or around Nazareth – a Jewish area surrounded by several gentile towns.
And of course, there were the women too – recorded as sustaining Him of their substance, and Lazarus’ sisters, Mary Magdalene and the other Marys not to mention His Mother. These women were Believers and serious assistants. Look at the Samaritan woman at the well – a messenger to her own people. The women deserve a study all of their own.
Former lives, mistakes, offences count for nought, it was their ready belief and their acceptance of Jesus for who He truly was that counted.
Around 200 AD, Sextus Julius Africanus, cited by Eusebius (Church History 1.7.14), speaks of “Nazara” as a mere village in “Judea” and writes of desposunoi – relatives of Jesus – who he claims kept the records of their descent with great care.
So the context of Jesus is important. He was amongst His own people and His own group of followers within that society which knew Him and His family quite well.
We have all known someone who manages to be the centre of attention in a group, but this Jesus is somehow different He doesn’t need to try – He just naturally is. He is strong, a totally compelling presence. Human yes, ordinary – but extraordinary – something that can’t be understood easily. There is no getting away from it: When He was there, everyone was listening. He didn’t have a rabbinical beth ha-Midrash or beth ha Talmud education, but yet He knows everything there is to know. The entire education of everyone in the Jewish school system of those days was in the Scriptures, yet He seems to know them by heart, better than any Rabbi. Even those who disagree seemed to listen and couldn’t really answer Him and His statements were on another plane entirely, a gracious and yet altogether divine plane. His presence was in a sense, confusing, something that couldn’t easily be explained – unless of course He was in fact God.
In Israel at the time – especially because of the Zealots, there were a number of would-be messiahs and other leaders of groups. Mostly they seem to have been given to violent solutions, however there were also many wandering Rabbis and teachers. But what then, of Jesus? Well it is all in His authority and His teaching of the fatherhood of God, His love for mankind, and of course there were the miracles which were done by no other teacher – these set Him apart and well above the other wandering teachers. The miracles gave His teaching the greatest authority.
Within all this however He was surrounded by the Apostles and the Disciples. We know from the time of the sending of the seventy out to preach across Israel that there must have at least been around a hundred men relatively close whom He knew to have understood His teaching, keeping Him company. When He travelled with them (it must have been quite a movement requiring some organisation – in fact a major missionary event), they didn’t always understand where or why they were going, some of them asked questions, discussed things and they often got somewhat difficult answers, as a group of Jews, there was probably endless discussion among them. Yet they had to be there, to be left out was unthinkable, what they heard scared them, puzzled them and ofttimes passed right over their understanding, for their eyes were not yet opened. Nevertheless His presence made it all reassuring – He certainly knew much that was hidden from His followers, He had answers to questions they hadn’t even asked – He was compelling, people had be there with Him. They didn’t know it yet, but He was God incarnate, which was of course the answer.
And then He was taken away from their midst in the most frightening of circumstances, arrested and immediately questioned and tried, of course they felt at risk themselves, all of them were afraid. Jesus was quickly executed in public as a criminal, for something that wasn’t really clear to them at all. He was gone.
They were devastated for this wasn’t just a friend, for He had told them that He was the Son of God – those who had been with Him at Mount Tabor had passed on their experience there, they knew that it was true but couldn’t understand how it could be, but they had heard it from His own lips. He was the centre, their reason for being, He was irreplaceable, they couldn’t go on without Him – because He was the centre. Then suddenly He reappeared amongst them – no doubt that it is Him – there He was and very real. This was the real Jesus back amongst them, talking to them, teaching them a whole lot more and now there was absolutely no doubt, they had been in the presence of God Himself.
Saint John the Divine tells us that Jesus taught His people a great deal more than is recorded in the Gospels. That makes a lot of sense, since He would have been in fairly constant conversation with them for at least three years and it seems unlikely that He was given to idle chatter. This in depth teaching only bore fruit after the Ascension when they could see it all in context and understand the depth of what He was saying.
This explains the fact that the Apostles and others display such a profound understanding and passed it on to the succeeding generations. Saint John the Divine (theologian) lived on to great age and taught several generations of men who would become the early Fathers of the Church. These Fathers guided by the Holy Spirit and with the detailed teaching passed from Jesus, could and did leave for us profound teachings explaining the Scriptures and our relationship with God.
Jesus was therefore an historical fact, there’s really no denying that – too many others mentioning Him – He was the Son of God by His own admission and other’s estimation. How He and His Apostles and Disciples operated in first century Israel is the real point.
He was by no means obscure in Israel during His ministry – all Israel would have heard of Him, and seen Him and his multitude of followers as they moved around the country. His ministry would, for the period, have been a fairly major undertaking – He was trying to speak to all of Israel, for the Jews were to be the first to hear, they had the first right of refusal.
His interacting with His followers and ordinary people daily with discussion, argument and speculation – that much we know from Scripture, and Jesus word was the final one in these situations. He was the undisputed leader. He had friends outside the group too – Lazarus and his family – who were also believers. Within that group of Apostles and Disciples, there was something which survived entirely His death and Ascension. So strong was His presence that the Apostles and Disciples personally survived for nearly a century, separated geographically as they carried His distinct message as far as they could. The Apostolic missions went from Britain to India and from Africa to Georgia proclaiming the love of God now to all mankind beyond just the Jews.
Jesus’ message was indeed very different, a teaching that the Empire had not come across before and which in the long run it was powerless to stop.
Jesus presence here in earth was such that it is still powerfully felt today two thousand years later.
JESUS IN SCRIPTURE, THE FATHERS AND LITURGY
Men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man attended to you by God with mighty works and signs and wonders which God did to Him in your midst, as you yourself know – this Jesus delivered up according to a definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it (Acts 2:22-24).
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father (Jn 10:17-18).
Neither the Gospel nor the Church teaches that Jesus was lying dead and then was magically revived and walked around in the same way that he did before he was killed. The Gospel does not say that the angel moved the stone from the tomb in order to let Jesus out. The angel moved the stone to reveal that Jesus was not there (Mk 16; Mt 28).
At His resurrection Jesus comes back in a new and glorified form. Appearing in different places almost simultaneously. He is difficult to recognise (Luke 24:16; Jn 20:14). He eats and drinks to show that he is not a ghost (Luke 24:30, 39). He allows himself to be touched (John 20: 27, 21:9) – and yet He appears in the midst of His people, “the doors being shut” (Jn 20:19, 26). And He “vanishes out of their sight” (Luke 24:31). Christ indeed is risen, but His resurrected body is full of life and divinity. It is human in the new form of the eternal Kingdom of God. So it is too with the resurrection of the dead.
The resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection of all mankind. It is the fulfilment of the Old Testament, “For Thou doest not give me up unto Sheol, or let Thy Godly one see corruption” (Ps 16:10; Acts 2:25-36). In Christ all is fulfilled: O Death, where is now thy sting? O Sheol, where is thy victory? (Hos 13:14).
And David answered and said, “I know the words being shouted, since by His Spirit I prophesied the same; and now I say to you what I said before: ‘The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle: He is the King of glory.” ………
And as David spoke in this way, so the Lord of Majesty appeared in the form of a man and lightened the eternal darkness and broke the unbreakable bonds. And His everlasting might brought relief to us that sat in the deep darkness of our transgressions and in the shadow of death of our sins……….
Then the King of Glory in his majesty trampled on death,
and laid hold of Prince Satan and delivered him to the power of Hades, and drew Adam to Him, to His own brightness……..
And the Lord stretching out His hand, said, “Come to Me, all My holy ones who bear My image and My likeness. You that by the tree and the devil and death were condemned, behold now the devil and death condemned by the Tree!” And immediately all the saints were gathered together under the hand of the Lord. And the Lord holding the right hand of Adam, said to him, “Peace be to you with all your children, my righteous ones.”
Blessed is he that came from heaven that he might dwell on earth, was made man that he might destroy the sins of the flesh, was made a victim that through his passion he might give eternal life to them that believe, the same Lord Jesus Christ, (Liturgy of Saint John the Divine (Stowe)
Come Forth ye blessed of My Father Inherit of the kingdom Alleluia, prepared for you from the foundation of the world, Alleluia. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be Come ye forth! As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen. Come ye forth! (Liturgy of Saint John the Divine (Stowe).
JESUS AND HIS OPPOSITION
The difference between Jesus and Mahommed are startling. Since Mahommed followed his writing by leading an army of armed men on a swathe of murderous battles, killing thousands of people, and after his death, were murders amongst his followers and more battles between his followers even until today – it is unsurprising that he is quite well documented.
Jesus on the other hand led only a small army of preachers of the fatherhood of a loving God. Yet we know that He is still well documented by those outside His movement. His teaching reached a much wider part of the world in peace than Mahommed’s ever did by war and murder.
We know that Lucifer was an angel who disagreed with God’s method of saving mankind. Lucifer had a different strategy in mind for reaching what he thought was God’s goal. Hence his fall from grace and his ongoing campaign as satan.
It is indeed arguable that Mahommed’s methods are entirely the strategy of Lucifer, and clearly opposed to those of Christ. Mahommed denies the Divinity of Christ – as indeed Lucifer would want to deny Christ and His Way.
We know that we are warned that if even an angel should teach something other than Christ’s teaching, we should shun him as satan. We know too that satan can appear as an angel of light since he is an angel himself. Little doubt that the angel who dictated the koran to Mahommed was in fact Lucifer, dictating his own strategy. This then is the strategy of satan out in the open and pursued by millions in the struggle with Christ and the Way of God.