Jesus Of Nazareth

  • The memory of any stretch of years eventually resolves to a list of names, and one of the useful ways of recalling the past two millenniums is by listing the people who acquired great power. Muhammad, Catherine the Great, Marx, Gandhi, Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin and Mao come quickly to mind. There's no question that each of those figures changed the lives of millions and evoked responses from worship through hatred.

    It would require much exotic calculation, however, to deny that the single most powerful figure--not merely in these two millenniums but in all human history--has been Jesus of Nazareth. Not only is the prevalent system of denoting the years based on an erroneous 6th century calculation of the date of his birth, but a serious argument can be made that no one else's life has proved remotely as powerful and enduring as that of Jesus. It's an astonishing conclusion in light of the fact that Jesus was a man who lived a short life in a rural backwater of the Roman Empire, who died in agony as a convicted criminal, and who may never have intended so much as a small portion of the effects worked in his name.

    Who was Jesus then? And how can we learn more about him?

    We have little that might be called history concerning the man. There is a meager handful of unrevealing allusions to his existence in early Roman and Jewish sources. The recently recovered remains of a modest house in Capernaum give strong signs of being Peter's residence, which was apparently Jesus' Galilean headquarters. Ongoing excavations in Galilee clarify the picture of the small-town world in which he learned the builder's trade and acquired his deep knowledge of the Jewish scriptures. Modern studies have confirmed the good possibility that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem covers the site of his execution and burial. And five years ago, the apparent tomb and bones of the high priest Caiaphas, who presided at Jesus' inquest, were discovered by accident. No doubt future discoveries will continue to increase understanding of that provincial ethos, and there is always the chance that something truly sensational may be found: a complete 1st century manuscript Gospel, the travel notes of an actual disciple or a memorandum from some quailing pupil of the dead rabbi on the Sabbath during which he lay in the tomb.

    There was initial hope that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 would throw light on the roots of Christianity. There was speculation that perhaps John the Baptist and even Jesus himself were members of the sect or closely related to it. The scrolls have already contributed to a fuller understanding of the textual history of Jewish scripture and the realities of 1st century Judaism--especially its variety of apocalyptic hopes and the absence of anything that might be called orthodoxy. However, they have shed no direct light on Jesus. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts, discovered by Egyptian farmers in 1945, also proved of interest chiefly to students of the swarm of theologies that proliferated in early Christianity. The chance that they contain reliable historical information about Jesus is slender, though they hint tantalizingly that Jesus may have been more liberal in his views of women and sexuality than later church fathers allowed.

    Our only substantial biographical sources are the New Testament Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, brief documents written in colloquial Greek late in the generation of those who knew Jesus first- or secondhand. By the end of the 2nd century, these four had become the basic canonical texts of the mainline Christianity of Rome and the Middle East.

    A curious reader can also find survivors in several modern editions of New Testament Apocrypha (from the Greek apokruphos, "hidden")--scraps of other Gospels, letters, apocalypses, acts of the apostles and other figures related to Jesus. Some of them offer occasionally striking, even comic, moments. There are numerous stories about the young Jesus, for instance--a sometimes amusing, sometimes dangerous superchild playmate. And there may be actual moments of history in the mostly fictional tales of the acts of John the Beloved, Peter, Paul and others.

    To glance at one of the most interesting remains, there are a few surviving speeches of Jesus from the Gospel of the Hebrews and a post-Resurrection appearance from the same source that have the ring of authenticity. "Now the Lord...went to James [his brother] and appeared to him. For James had taken an oath that he would not eat bread...till that hour when he saw him risen from the dead... The Lord said, 'Bring a table and bread'... He took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to James the Just and said to him, 'My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from those who sleep.'"

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