History and Sources

How do the Christian scriptures describe Jesus?

Weaving together historical fact, interpretation of pre-Christian sources, and an emerging understanding of the circumstances in which the earliest Christians found themselves, the Gospels provide insights of various kinds into the life and identity of Jesus. The four Gospels are not historical biography in the modern sense of that term. Behind each of the Gospels is a particular theological view about who Jesus is. A concrete example will make this clear. Matthew and Luke both include genealogies of Jesus. Not only are the figures mentioned not identical, but the two authors approach the matter quite differently. Matthew opens his Gospel with the genealogy, tracing Jesus from Abraham forward through David and the Babylonian Exile, emphasizing his Jewish lineage and explicitly calling him “the Christ,” the Messiah (Matthew 1:1-17). Luke inserts his genealogy just after John baptizes Jesus, a scene that ends with the voice of God declaring Jesus his “beloved son.” Luke then traces the line backward through history all the way to Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:23-38), emphasizing the universality of Jesus in our shared humanity.

Taken together the Gospels give this general picture: Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Galilee by devout Jewish parents. He was well educated—he quotes scripture liberally and reads in the synagogue—and his belief in immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body suggests that he had more in common theologically with the Pharisees than one might at first suspect. After perhaps thirty years of relative anonymity, Jesus’ “public life” began with his baptism in the Jordan. After his initial desert experience, recalling the Exodus, he worked in Galilee, gathered followers, and turned toward Jerusalem for Passover (John says little about the Galilean period and has Jesus attending three Passovers in Jerusalem). After cleansing the Temple, driving away the merchants doing business in a holy place, Jesus gathers the Twelve for the “Last Supper,” after which he is arrested, tried, executed, and rises from the dead. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles picks up at that point and describes the post-resurrection appearances and Jesus’ ascension into Heaven forty days later.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. (Courtesy of David Oughton.)


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