The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz. There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content). John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website. A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935. These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity. For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).
CHAPTER THREE: THE WORLD, LIFE, AND MINISTRY OF JESUS
The Old Testament is a story in search of an ending, which comes with the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. People have managed to do away with many things, but not Jesus. He remains a potent figure— often misunderstood, sometimes disparaged, but always there. We date our calendars with his birth, capture him in art and music, and use his teachings as reference points in talking about ethics, morals and justice.
The Intertestamental Period
The period following the return of the exiles from Babylon in 538 B.C. is a period of religious history that remains in the shadows. The walls around Jerusalem were rebuilt under Nehemiah; a modest temple was erected; Jewish religious life was reestablished by Ezra; and the Hebrew Scriptures were gathered together. In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great invaded and conquered Palestine. Alexander loved everything Greek and introduced Greek language, culture and religion wherever he was victorious. In 250 B.C., Jews living in Alexandria (named for Alexander) had to have the Scriptures translated into Greek so that they could be read, resulting in the Septuagint.
Alexander died of a fever at the young age of thirty-three. Because he had no legal heir, his empire was divided among his generals. Seleucus became the ruler of Syria and Palestine. In 167 B.C., the Syrian king Antiochus IV tried to stamp out Judaism, which provoked an uprising led by Judas, whose nickname was Maccabee (“the hammer”). The Maccabeans defeated the Syrians in December 164 B.C. and purified the temple, an event that Jews still celebrate as Hanukkah (“dedication”). The Jews regained control of their land, but then in 63 B.C. the Romans invaded Palestine to solidify Rome’s control of the perimeter of the Mediterranean Sea. This gave them a safe winter land route to bring food from Egypt to Rome. Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), whom historians consider Rome’s greatest emperor; Jesus died during the reign of Tiberius (14-37).
The House of Herod
The founder of the house of Herod was Antipater, who came to the aid of Julius Caesar during his Egyptian campaign (48-47 B.C.). Caesar rewarded Antipater with the governorship of Judea and granted the Jews exemption from military service and the freedom to worship their own God. In the year 37 B.C., Marc Antony, the ruler of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, made Antipater’s son, Herod, the king of the Jews. Herod was called “the Great” by the Romans (not by the Jews) because of his architectural achievements— beautifying Solomon’s temple, building the city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea, and constructing palace-fortresses like the Antonia Fortress, where Jesus was flogged; Machaerus, where John the Baptist was beheaded; and Masada, near the Dead Sea. Herod ruled Israel from 37 to 4 B.C. In spite of what we may think of him, he must have been an effective administrator, because Rome never removed him.
Upon Herod’s death, his empire was divided between three of his sons. Archelaus was an evil, oppressive ruler like his father. In A.D. 6, the Jews sent a delegation to Rome to complain about Archelaus, and he was removed, after which Judea and Samaria were ruled by Rome-appointed governors like Pontius Pilate, who ruled from 26 to 36. Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded, ruled Galilee and Perea until he was removed in 39. Philip the Tetrarch (“ruler of a fourth”) ruled the northeastern territories until his death in 34. Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, ruled all of Israel from 41 to 44. He was succeeded by his son, Herod Agrippa II, the last Herodian ruler, who died in the year 93.
Jewish Political and Religious Communities
In the first century, the majority of the Jews lived in Judea, in the south. Galilee, where Jesus lived, was heavily Gentile. The Sadducees, who resided in Jerusalem, were the ruling hierarchy. The Pharisees were the “religious” of Israel, along with the scribes. The Essenes lived in semi-monastic communities like Qumran (the “monks” of Judaism), whose Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. The Zealots were the “heirs” of the Maccabees, Israel’s freedom fighters.
The most important of these groups were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were the priestly party and controlled the temple and the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. They regarded Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary who might provoke a riot that would bring down the heavy hand of Rome and were responsible for his death. The Sadducees were linked with the temple; after its destruction in the year 70, they disappeared from the scene.
The Pharisees were lay, fundamentalist Jews and small in number (about six thousand in the first century); they were much admired for their learning and piety. The Pharisees believed that the way to honor God was to keep the law, and they challenged Jesus when they felt he did not do so: for instance, when he ate with sinners, healed the unclean and broke the Sabbath. The Pharisees led the Jewish community after the fall of the temple and determined the books to be received into the Jewish canon.
Outline of Jesus’ Life
Jesus was born in 7 or 6 B.c. (see next section). He spent the first thirty-three years of his life in Nazareth, a town of five hundred or so people in lower Galilee. The following is a brief outline of his public ministry.
–In the year 27, John the Baptist, the Elijah-like messenger prophesied by Malachi (3:1 and 4:5), “announces” that Jesus is the one Israel has long been waiting for and baptizes him in the Jordan River. Jesus receives God’s Spirit (Luke 3:21-22) and is led into the wilderness, where he is tested by Satan.
–Following his baptism and testing, Jesus returns to Galilee, proclaiming, “The time has come… The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
–Jesus calls twelve to be his disciples and begins his ministry, much of which occurs in and around Capernaum, a fishing village and commercial center on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee that became his home after he was rejected at Nazareth (Luke 4:28-31). The crowds are amazed at Jesus’ teachings and healings but do not recognize him as the hoped-for Messiah.
–Conflicts arise between Jesus and the religious leaders concerning Jesus’ association with sinners (tax collectors, lepers, the demon-possessed), his non-observance of Jewish rituals (washing before meals and fasting), and his breaking the Sabbath law against “work.”
–At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Peter gives the right answer, but clearly he and the disciples do not understand that Jesus’ mission means suffering and death. This is why they abandon him after his arrest: they think that his mission has failed and that his fate will also be theirs.
–Jesus travels to Jerusalem, where he debates and challenges the religious authorities. He is betrayed by Judas, arrested by the temple guards, tried by the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, beaten and scourged by the soldiers, denied by Peter and crucified between two criminals. He dies, is buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea— and three days later is raised from the dead to confirm that he was and is the very Son of God.
The four Gospels deal with Jesus’ public life, from his baptism in the Jordan to his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Matthew and Luke include birth narratives in their Gospels to add information about Jesus’ origins; to record that Joseph was from the line of David, because the Messiah was to be a “Son of David” (2 Samuel 7:12-16); to show that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem fulfilled the prophecy of Micah 5:2; and to begin with Jesus’ conception to record that he was God incarnate (“God in the flesh”) from the very beginning.
Joseph and Mary were the parents of Jesus. Joseph was his “legal” father and Mary his natural mother. We know very little about Joseph; most scholars believe that he died before Jesus began his public ministry. We don’t know much about Mary, either, other than that she was young, a virgin, the cousin of Elizabeth and had found favor with God (Luke 1:28). By all accounts she must have been a remarkable woman. There is no way of knowing how old Joseph was when he and Mary became engaged; according to marriage customs in Israel at the time, Mary would have been thirteen or fourteen, much younger than the matronly Mary we are used to seeing in Christian art.
Also, we don’t know for certain the year of Jesus’ birth. It was most likely two or three years before Herod’s death in 4 B.C. because, according to Matthew, Herod gave orders “to kill all the boys in Bethlehem … who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16). Nor do we know the day on which Jesus was born. The great celebratory events in the early church were Jesus’ death and resurrection (Good Friday and Easter), not his birth. Jesus’ supposed birth date— which we celebrate on December 25 as Christmas (“Christ’s Mass”)— was established in the year 336 by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire.
Jesus’ Baptism, Testing and Disciples
The years before Jesus appeared at the Jordan— the years prior to the year 27— are referred to as Jesus’ “hidden years.” The event that launches Jesus on his public ministry is his baptism by his cousin John (the two were related through their mothers, according to Luke 1:36). The prophet Malachi had prophesied that Elijah, who was taken to heaven in “a chariot of fire” (2 Kings 2:11), would return to announce the coming of the Lord. Orthodox Jews believe this will still occur. But in the Gospels, John is understood as the Elijah figure who announces Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, as in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus tells the disciples that “he [John the Baptist] is the Elijah who was to come” (11:14).
Following Jesus’ baptism, he is tempted or tested by Satan in the Judean wilderness. Inasmuch as Jesus was alone in the wilderness, the account of his testing must have been told to the disciples at a later date, along with other personal material in the Gospels (see Mark 4:34).
The word disciple comes from a word meaning “learner.” There were disciples in the Old Testament— Isaiah, for instance, had disciples— but the term owes its popularity to the New Testament, where it usually refers to “one of the Twelve.” Peter is the spokesperson for the disciples, the one who confesses Jesus to be the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:29). James and John are also prominent, and together with Peter they comprise the “inner circle” of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospels and in Acts. Jesus’ disciples came from Galilee, with the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, who most scholars believe came from southern Judea. Jesus chose his disciples from among his many followers—Luke mentions seventy-two (Luke 10:1)—and he commissions the Twelve to be the new “patriarchs” of Israel.
What was Jesus’ “mission,” that is, what did Jesus come to do? First, he came to reveal God. Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Paul writes that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said that Jesus is “the exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3).
Second, he came to inaugurate the kingdom of God, which was both already present (in his person) and not yet completed (“thy kingdom come”).
Third, he came to redeem humankind through his substitutionary death for our sins— for not loving God with our whole heart and mind, for not obeying his commands (1 John 5:3), and for not showing love and mercy to our neighbors. The Christian community believes that Jesus’ death fulfilled God’s plan to send one to bear the sins of the world, as prophesied by Isaiah (53:12), and it regards all of the circumstances surrounding his death, including the betrayal of Judas, as necessary ingredients in this plan.
Why was Jesus killed? This is a two-part question. First, why did he go to Jerusalem, knowing that he would be killed there (Mark 10:32-34)? Second, why did the authorities put him to death shortly after he arrived in Jerusalem? As to the first question, Jesus’ principal mission was to die a one-time-forever sacrificial death for the sins of the world. If Jesus had died of old age, for instance, he would not have died for our sins.
As to the second question, why did the Sadducees want Jesus killed, and why did Pontius Pilate, knowing that Jesus was innocent (Luke 23:13-15), agree to his crucifixion? The Sadducees were afraid that Jesus would provoke an uprising that would bring a swift, brutal response from Rome— and as Jewish leaders, they would be the first casualties. The reasons for their concern were many: Passover celebrated the deliverance of Israel from foreign rule; it was believed that the Messiah would appear during Passover; Jesus came from Galilee, an area seething with anti-Roman feeling; and Jerusalem was overflowing with Jews who had come to celebrate the Passover. As for Pilate, he was on bad terms with the Jews for erecting emblems of Emperor Tiberius (“graven images”) in Jerusalem and for appropriating money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct. The Jewish leaders told Pilate that “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12), implying, perhaps, that they would go to Rome to have him removed, as they had Archelaus.
Jesus’ death was by crucifixion, a brutal, cruel, shameful method of execution. Crucifixion was preceded by flogging to weaken the victim’s strength, thereby shortening the time it would take him to die. Crosses were hung in public places— Jesus was executed at the Place of the Skull (Golgotha in Greek, Calvary in Latin)— with a sign telling of the accused’s crime as a warning to others. Jesus’ sign read “King of the Jews,” implying that he claimed to be a king in opposition to the Roman emperor. (The Sanhedrin’s charge that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy would not have warranted Roman execution.) The final humiliation came at the end: victims were stripped naked and their bodies left to scavenging birds.
The New Testament records twelve accounts of Jesus appearing to his disciples and others after his resurrection. The accounts were written as fact, as something that actually occurred, not as theology. They emphasize the element of surprise: no one was expecting what happened on Easter morning, even though Jesus said that he would be raised on the third day (Mark 8:31). And they struggle to describe Jesus’ post-resurrection body, which was physical— Jesus was able to eat and drink— but could also pass through doors. The Christian writer Frederick Buechner, in his book The Magnificent Defeat, said, “Unless something very real took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no church and no Christianity.”