We’ve learned in previous posts which Gospels we can trust as generally reliable historical sources, and why. So, now, what do we really know about Jesus? Let’s see what we can discover about this historical figure.
The New Testament Gospels present a Jesus widely known for working wonders. It doesn’t take us long in reading these accounts before we recognize this to be a key aspect to who Jesus was. He heals the sick, cures lepers, gives sight to the blind, makes the lame walk again, casts out demons, even raises the dead. According to these accounts, this was probably the greatest factor in Jesus drawing huge crowds of people to himself.
What’s surprising to some is that most Jesus scholars—even non-Christian ones—agree that Jesus must have been able to perform some kind of wonders. It’s generally agreed the historical person known as Jesus attracted large crowds of followers, and that what mostly drew the crowds to him was his reputation as a healer and miracle-worker. The earliest stories of Jesus’ ministry recount him healing not just a lucky handful who made it “on stage,” but everyone within vast multitudes of people. These stories would not have been sustainable if he had not, in fact, healed entire crowds of people.
What’s also revealing is that the most vehement and vocal critics of early Christianity never denied Jesus’ ability to work miracles. We find many references to his ministry in early (non-Christian) Jewish writings; they denounce him as a sorcerer but admit he performed healings and miracles. It seems apparent that if they could have denied Jesus’ miraculous power, they would have.
Jesus was not only renowned for his healing abilities but also his teaching. Instead of the common rabbinical methods of his day—where a teacher would appeal to what rabbi X had once concluded, which was confirmed by rabbis Y and Z, ad infinitum—the people noticed immediately that Jesus taught with a surprising sense of authority. He didn’t appeal to the consensus of previous teachers; he simply said, “I say unto you . . .” This was shocking to the people, arresting their attention. What he taught was definitely fresh and provocative, but it was also compelling, hard to dismiss or refute. His teaching consistently focused on two things:
Kingdom of God
The first century Jews were anticipating the Kingdom of God, but Jesus presented a radically different way of understanding this Kingdom. Rather than proclaiming political deliverance for the nation of Israel, he taught a way of life focused on loving God and loving others. The Kingdom of God he described was somehow now in their midst, was something they were to seek, and would one day be fully and universally established. Jesus also taught that the Jews were not automatically part of this Kingdom, that there was a certain prescribed entryway into the Kingdom of God.
Son of Man
Put bluntly, Jesus focused his teaching on two subjects: (1) the Kingdom of God, and (2) himself. Jesus’ most common phrase for referring to himself was the “Son of Man.” This was understood by his culture as referring to the Messiah, the promised Deliverer. The only way to enter the Kingdom of God, the only way to receive salvation and enter into relationship with the Father, was through placing one’s faith in Jesus. While drawing the people to himself in his teaching, he repeatedly challenged their understanding of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. Jesus’ continual emphasis on himself proved to be the dividing line between those who accepted him and those who did not.
Possibly without exception, the Jesus scholars agree that Jesus suffered the ignominy of a public execution by Roman crucifixion in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Why this occurred and the implications of this death are subjects we’ll explore soon in another post.
The overwhelming consensus of Jesus scholars is that the New Testament burial accounts of Jesus are reliable. After being crucified, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, in his own family tomb. We’ll return to the significance of this detail later.
This post is briefer than the others in this series, and it prompts us to now ask the crucial questions to which all of this leads: What of the resurrection? Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead? Is there any historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? We’ll begin examining these questions next week.
The historical Jesus series:
What can we know about the historical Jesus? [see above]