Jesus of Nazareth

Composed by Sr. Juliana Baldinger NDS

Nobody doubts that Jesus of Nazareth lived in the Land of Israel Math:2:20 (then occupied by the Romans) from about 6 B.C. to 33 A.C., and that his mother was Jewish. The small family therefore lived according to the Torah: Gal. 4. 4. In Jewish tradition, a child in a valid marriage is called according to the status of the father; in a mixed marriage (that is, if not both parents are Jews) the child gets his status from the mother. In the New Testament, the identity of Jesus is defined through his father: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph?” (John 6.42), or by his geographical origin: “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1.45). (That tells us that Mary as well as Josef have both been Jews).

His Life. We know how Jesus lived from the literature about his time and about him. In the New Testament we also find parts of his life that are proven historically correct, like his birth, his life in Nazareth, his being crucified by the Romans, and the assertions of his disciples that he rose from the dead.

Like his father Joseph, Jesus worked in Nazareth as a tekton, wood worker (carpenter, cabinet maker), i.e., as a craftsman like any other craftsman.

He lived for about 30 years in Nazareth, and his missionary life was short: it lasted for about three Pesach feasts. The most important places of his mission are found in Galilee, and – depending on the gospel one chooses – he is either frequently in Jerusalem, or he comes only once into the city where the temple is found, God’s dwelling: the place to which every religious Jew would go on pilgrimage three times a year, to say thanks and to offer his donations.

The Scripture from which Jesus drew his knowledge is the Tanakh, or the Old Testament; his words are nurtured by these writings.

Criticisms. Naturally, there are events in connection with the life of Jesus which will not be accepted by many Non-Christians: for example the miracles, the virgin birth or the resurrection. But there is no doubt that Jeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth was a historical person. With his disciples, he travelled all over the country which was under Roman occupation, and the Roman authority condemned him to death by crucifixion. His followers disseminated the news of his resurrection from the dead, and there are numerous accounts of the fact that he lived. All this is known from both secular and Christian sources.

The disciples. Jesus starts his public life by summoning disciples so that he does not travel alone over the Galilean land. All his disciples stem from Galilee, except for Judas Iscariot whose name implies that he comes from Iscariot, a village in Judea. The disciples lead a life in community with Jesus and inspired by Jesus; they have no personal property.

Jesus leads a celibate life, and every attempt to make him appear married is unrealistic, since there is no historical basis for such a claim. We know that some of his disciples were married, and after death and resurrection, they took their wives with them on their missionary journeys. 1 Cor 9.5: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” Jesus teaches the disciples who are with him, and apparently, they are sometimes slow in understanding, hot-headed and full of zeal. Unmarried women also belong to this group wandering throughout Galilee, and the name of Mary Magdalene is always first in the lists found in the gospels.

After Easter, the group of the twelve becomes the core group, and due to the loss of Judas Iscariot, a new one has to be chosen among those that were with them all the time: it must be a group of twelve again. Acts 1.21-23: “So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection. So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.” Apparently there was no great choice, for only two men could be presented as candidates. The lot fell on Matthias.

Jesus did not have equal relations to all of his disciples. So we hear almost nothing about Andrew. Nor about Philip who is evidently afraid of asking Jesus on his own: John 12.21-22: “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.” Bartholomew seems to have no voice, but from Thomas, we have a few fundamental sayings showing great faith. Matthew, Thaddaeus and Simon the Cananaean practically never appear in the tales of the gospel; their only place is in the list of the twelve. It seems that Peter, John and James are the spokesmen of the group. Judas Iscariot has to say something every now and then; but otherwise, the disciples appear silent.

Healing and sanctification. Judging from what he said, Jesus knew the human heart and the requirements of everyday life. The main daily concern of the group of men summoned by Jesus was to heal and to sanctify body and soul.

We know that Jesus cured people in a miraculous way as other rabbis of his time did; but we know also that his miraculous healing was often intimately connected to faith in him: Matthew 9.22: Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. And on the other hand, the gospel tells us that Jesus was not capable of performing miraculous deeds in some cities where there was no trust, no faith in him.

The gospels. The New Testament is the book, where the first faithful described how the faith of Jesus and of his disciples developed. John 4.9: The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’. The texts make it clear that Jesus was a Jew who lived according to the Torah and who taught the Torah; after being rejected by some and handed over to the Romans, the Romans under Pontius Pilate crucified him, and he rose from the dead on the third day; after showing himself several times to his disciples, he ascended into heaven. Luke 24.51: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”

The gospels are the primary source for the history of Jesus’ public life. They were written 20 to 60 years after his death, i.e., rather soon and within a time where people still had lively memories of the events they describe. These sources were deemed reliable by the early Christian congregations at a time where first or second hand witnesses of his life were still available. The events described by the gospels had largely happened quite openly. John 18.20: Jesus answered: ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.’ His death was an execution in public.

Jesus’ message. Jesus must be seen in the tradition of the prophets; he judges situations as God sees them. He preaches peace, God’s love and God’s proximity to the poor. The New Testament gives Jesus various titles such as: Teacher, Rabbi, Lord, the Good Shepherd, Prophet, Son of David, Son of Man, Servant of God, or the Messiah.

Jesus proclaims his message amid his people, speaking to peasants, day-labourers, to hungry, mourning, leprous and possessed people, walking along the lake, on the hills of Galilee, in the synagogues of the country, while passing by and in conversation, while eating together and in the temple of Jerusalem. These are the people whom he addresses. The higher class, sustained by heritage, social standing, influence and possessions and living on privileges, these persons gradually become his enemies. Following Jesus requires spiritual, not material values: that was easy for the poor but hard for the rich who possess many material things and live on reputation and influence.

The main theme of Jesus’ message is the advent of the kingdom of God: the kingdom of  heaven is here among you. Matthew 4.17: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The reign or the kingdom of God which forms the central point for Jesus, is not only oriented toward Judgment, not only something of the future, it is a present reality with Jesus, acting now among the people. His word wants to transform human beings. Jesus shows the poor, the disadvantaged, that their situation is a scandal before God and that it is the duty of everybody to help in abolishing it. Laughter and having one’s fill, situations only known to the higher class, these happened in Jesus’ surroundings. The story of poor Lazarus illustrates this: Luke 16.29: Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” The point is to keep the Torah and to care for the poor, as prescribed by the Torah.

Jesus is a human being who has feelings, who suffers pain, hunger and thirst, who is led into temptation as we are. But he also claims to be divine: he is more than human. Jesus is a man without sin: John 8.46: “Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” Even his enemies could not provide evidence of a single sin of his. Jesus arrests the wind, and his disciples are surprised and start to get scared. Luke 8.25: He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ His listeners reacted to his teachings like this: Mark 1.22: They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Jesus spends time in prayer with God, and he retires to lonely places with his disciples, in order to be alone with them.

The mission. For the Jews in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were a regional, Galilean phenomenon not transcending that group. Jesus himself never left Israel. Jesus’ message was a message for the people of Israel; it did not have great influence and it seemed rather unsuccessful during his life on earth. He did not speak about mission for the gentiles, but always said that he is sent only to the people of Israel. So he also instructed his disciples: Matthew 10.5: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans’. So they should not go out to the gentiles. Jesus did not manage to gather the people of Israel, and so he died apparently without success.

But there is also the missionary command: Matthew 28.19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”. How can we reconcile this contradiction?

In Matthew 10.5, Jesus speaks to his disciples while he still dwells among them as a human being, still travels with them and lives the community life. In Matthew 28.19 it is the resurrected Jesus who speaks, it is the Christ. And the mission of the resurrected Jesus is: Go to all nations!

Jesus and Judaism. In order to tell the story of Jesus, one must know Jesus’ relation to the various groups of Judaism of his time. In the first century A.C., most Jews travelled to Jerusalem for the feast days, in order to offer their gifts to the Temple. Mainstream Judaism of that time never revolted against the Temple, as did the group of Qumran who retired to the desert in order to be cultically pure, and who used a solar calendar.

The life style of Jesus does set him apart from the group of the Pharisees, since he eats with sinners and touches defiled persons, but it is precisely with the Pharisees that he enjoys lively dialogues on the interpretation of Scripture, for example on understanding the law of the Sabbath. He interprets the Torah in the sense of the Halakha as the Pharisees do, and he interprets with authority.

If one tells the story of Jesus, one also tells the history of the relations between all the different groups under Roman occupation, from Galilee through Samaria to Judea.

This text is based upon various Christian and Jewish publications:

  • Mit Jesus durch Galiläa nach dem fünften Evangelium  Bargil Pixner OSB. Corazin publishing.
  • Mit Jesus in Jerusalem – seine ersten und letzen Tage in Judäa. Bargil Pixner OSB. Corazin publishing.
  • Jesus von Nazareth Joseph Ratzinger – Benedikt XVI: Jesus von Nazareth – Band 1: Von der Taufe im Jordan bis zur Verklärung, Verlag Herder, Freiburg-Basel-Wien
  • Linzer Bibelsaat Nr. 112, p.13: Die andere Perpektive. These 3: Jesus ist Jude. Die Heilige Schrift des Jesus von Nazaret, seiner JüngerInnen und der ersten ChristInnen ist das Alte Testament. Roswitha Unfried. Bibelwerk Linz, 2010
  • Jesus and Mohammed.  Ihr Leben, ihre Botschaft – eine Gegenüberstellung. Wolfgang Klausnitzer; Verlag Herder, Freiburg-Basel-Wien
  • The misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Amy-Jill Levine, Harper San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers
  • Jesus. David Flusser in collaboration with R. Steven Notley, the Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1998
  • Ein Rabbi spricht mit Jesus. Jacob Neusner: Ein jüdisch-christlicher
    Dialog (aus dem Amerikanischen von Karin Miedler und Enrico Heinemann);
    Verlag Herder, Freiburg-Basel-Wien. Titel der amerikanischen
    Originalausgabe: A Rabbi talks with Jesus. Copyright 1993 by Jacob
    Neusner, published by Doubleday