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Jesus — also known as Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus the Nazarene — is the central figure in Christianity and an important prophet in Islam. The primary sources about him and his teachings are the four Gospels, which depict him as a Jewish preacher and healer often at odds with Jewish authorities at that time and the Qu'ran, which is the primary source about him and his teachings in Islam.

"Jesus" transliterates the Greek Ιησους [Iēsoûs], and is assumed to be itself a transliteration from Aramaic or Hebrew (ie: Yeshua). "Christ" is a theological title, transliterating the Greek Χριστός [Christos], in turn a translation derived from the Hebrew Mashiach [Messiah], meaning "anointed" or "the anointed one and his anointing."

The gospels portray little of his early life apart from stories surrounding his presumed birth, which according to best estimates would be about 64 BCE. Those gospels focus mostly on his last one to three years, particularly the last week before a death by crucifixion, which, based on some historical data mentioned, would have been about 2933 CE. Both the Anno Domini system and the Common Era system of reckoning years have their origins in faulty 6th Century attempts to establish his birth date.

Though mention is made of a Jesus in the complete works of Josephus (in a passage considered a forgery by many scholars), and possibly as Yeshu in the Talmud (although most scholars do not view the relevant passages as historically accurate, and many doubt they refer to Jesus at all), there may exist no other textual references outside of the canonical Christian texts and the more recently found fragments of texts such as The Gospel of Thomas. A number of historians have seriously questioned whether Jesus ever really lived, and while most religious and secular scholars presume his existence, many find the question of his existence undecideable by historical means alone.

The acts and words attributed to Jesus by the gospels constitute Christianity's basic teachings. At least one of the Gospels states each of the following:

Most groups identifying themselves as Christians further believe, based on those gospels, tradition, or personal experiences, that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Saviour of all mankind, the Son of God, and one of the persons in the Godhead of the Trinity. Most Christians would equate Jesus with God himself, and when using pronouns to refer to him, use the honorifically capitalized "He", "Him", and "His", derived from their belief that Jesus was God incarnate.



Main articles: Historicity of Jesus, Jesus and textual evidence

The primary sources for information about Jesus' life are the four canonical Gospels and several non-canonical gospels. Lacking additional evidence, some historians argue that no such person as Jesus ever existed. Other historians, however, maintain that the source documents on which the four canonical Gospels are based were written within living memory of Jesus's lifetime. They therefore accept that the accounts of the life of Jesus in those Gospels provide a reasonable basis of evidence, by the standards of ancient history, for the historical existence of Jesus and the basic facts of his life and death. Even among those who do believe in his existence there are divisions over the historicity of the Gospels' accounts. Some say that the Gospel accounts are neither objective nor accurate, since they were written or compiled by his followers. Those who have a purely naturalistic view of history are particularly skeptical about events such as the resurrection of Jesus and other miracles mentioned in the Gospels.

There are many similarities between stories about Jesus and myths of Pagan Godmen such as Mithra, Apollo, Attis, and Osiris Dionysus, leading to conjectures that the pagan myths were adopted by early accounts of Jesus.

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, mentions no fewer than nineteen different Yeshuas, about half of them contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth.

Benjamin Urrutia, a modern scholar, contends that Rabbi Yeshua Bar Abba was the historical Jesus of Nazareth and was the leader of the successful nonviolent Jewish resistance to Pilate's attempt to place Roman Eagles - symbols of the worship of Jupiter - on Jerusalem's Temple Hill. This episode is found in Josephus, who does not say who the leader of this resistance was, but does state immediately afterwards that Pontius Pilate had Jesus crucified. In this regard, also see Barabbas.

It is commonly thought that Jesus preached for a period of three years, yet it is never mentioned explicitly in any of the gospels. One theory suggests that in the Gospel of John, a timeline is described which depicts a ministry time period of approximately one year (Passover to Passover). This theory of a one year ministry would coincide with the type and shadow of the passover lamb (lamb of God) being a yearling lamb. This, however, is not commonly taught and thus not a wide spread theory.

Religious perspectives

Main article: Religious perspectives on Jesus


The vast majority of groups identifying themselves as Christians believe Jesus was God Incarnate (a man who was the earthly aspect of God, as part of the Holy Trinity), who came to earth to save humanity from sin and death through the shedding of his own blood in sacrifice (salvation), and who rose from the dead and later ascended into Heaven.

Some groups identifying themselves as Christian, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, and Christian Scientists, believe Jesus was divinely inspired but not God incarnate. See also Nicene Creed. Others such as Mormons add their own sacred texts that continue on past the New Testament; and thus form a different sort of overall Christian history.


Atheists, by definition, do not believe in a divinity — and thus not in any divinity of Jesus. While some doubt he ever lived, some (though certainly not all) regard him as an important moral teacher.


Some Buddhists believe Jesus may have been a Bodhisattva, one who gives up his own Nirvana to help others reach theirs.


Hinduism is divided on the issue of Jesus—some hold that he was just a man, others say he was a great guru or yogi, others still equate Jesus with an avatar.


Islam teaches that:

  • Jesus (Isa in Arabic) was one of God's many human prophets who were chosen to teach Islam to humankind at different stages; the final and completed stage being taught by God's final prophet, Muhammad.
  • There is no god except the one true God. God does not have a son. Thus, as with all prophets, Jesus was a human being.
  • As with all prophets, Jesus was able to perform miracles, but only by the will of God.
  • Jesus was neither killed nor crucified; but God made it appear so to the people.
  • Jesus is alive and shall return to the world in the flesh along with the Mahdi once the world has become filled with injustice.


Traditional Judaism has deemed Jesus a false messiah, and religious Jews are still awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. Many Jews see Jesus as a minor miracle worker or failed rebel leader, but a small number consider him a great teacher. Others note a passage in Deuteronomy 13:1-6, which speaks of not adding or subtracting from the commandments, and of prophets who tell you to go against God or the commandments. Some scholars believe that Jesus is mentioned as Yeshu in the Jewish Talmud, although many scholars dispute this.

Other perspectives

The Bahá'í Faith considers Jesus to be a manifestation (prophet) of God, while not being God incarnate.

The New Age movement has reinterpreted the life and teaching of Jesus in a large variety of ways (For example, see A Course in Miracles). He has also been claimed as an Ascended Master by Theosophy and some of its offshoots; related speculations have him studying mysticism in the Himalaya or hermeticism in Egypt in the period between his childhood and his public career.

The discipline of Christology discusses who Jesus was or was not from a philosophical and theological perspective. The Christological argument attempts to prove the existence of God based on the existence of Jesus and his claims about himself as presented in the gospels.

The questions of the divinity of Jesus was discussed and voted on by Ecumenical Councils, starting with Constantine I's attempts at producing unity, enforcement of the resulting decision thus suggesting an air of politicisation to the supposedly religious issue. It is not the case that all scholars reject Jesus' divinity, yet some may choose to describe the social and cultural implications of claiming divinity in the 1st century. As such, scholars are interested in providing an historical context to the beliefs and tenets of Jesus' Kingdom of God movement. They believe he was simply a Jewish apocalyptic teacher and faith healer who was crucified, and was subsequently the inspiration for Christianity.

Date of birth and death

Main article: Chronology of Jesus' birth and death The most detailed information about Jesus' birth and death is contained in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. There is considerable debate about the details of Jesus' birth even among Christian scholars. Few, if any, scholars claim to know either the year or the date of his birth or of his death.

Based on the accounts in the gospels of the shepherds' activities, the time of year depicted for Jesus' birth would likely be spring or summer. However, as early as 354 CE, Roman Christians celebrated it following the December solstice in an attempt to replace the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. Before then, Jesus' birth was generally celebrated on January 6 as part of the feast of Theophany, also known as Epiphany, which commemorated not only Jesus' birth but also his baptism by John in the Jordan and possibly additional events in Jesus' life.

In the 248th year of the Diocletian Era (based on Diocletian's accession to the Roman throne), Dionysius Exiguus attempted to pinpoint the number of years since Jesus' birth, arriving at a figure of 753 years after the founding of Rome. Dionysius then set Jesus' birth as being December 25 1 BC, and assigning AD 1 to the following year — thereby establishing the system of numbering years from the birth of Jesus: Anno Domini (making the then current year AD 532). The Common Era reckoning of years is a derivation from this Anno Domini system. However, based on a lunar eclipse that Josephus reports shortly before the death of Herod the Great, the birth of Christ would have been some time before the year 4 BCE, probably 5 BCE or 6 BCE. This estimate itself depends on the historicity of the New Testament story involving Herod around the time of Jesus' birth.

As for Jesus' death, the exact date is also unclear. All the synoptic gospels depict the crucifixion just after the Passover, whereas St John's Gospel depicts the crucifixion just before the Passover festival. Further, the Jews followed a lunisolar calendar with phases of the moon as dates, complicating calculations of any exact date in a solar calendar. Allowing for the time of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate and the dates of the Passover in those years, his death can be placed most probably in 30 or 33 CE.

Life and teaching according to the New Testament

Main articles: New Testament view on Jesus' life and Resurrection of Jesus

Jesus was born in Bethlehem to a Jewish family, while Nazareth in Galilee was his childhood home. He is, according to the texts of Christianity, the son of Mary, a virgin and God himself. Mary's husband was Joseph, who had sons called James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, and some daughters.

The Gospels do not describe any of Jesus' life between the ages of 12 and 30, the last incident before the gap being that he instructed the scholars in the temple, neither is much of his childhood discussed (though some non-Biblical texts go into this detail). However, just after he was baptized by John the Baptist, a kinsman of Jesus, he began his public teaching.

Jesus used a variety of methods in his teaching, such as paradox, metaphor and parable, leaving it unclear how literally he wished to be taken and precisely what he meant. Jesus also performed various miracles in the course of his ministry, ranging from cures to exorcisms, with several others that show a dominion over nature. Scholars in mainstream Christian traditions as well as many secular scholars view these as claims of supernatural power. However, others consider the stories to be allegorical—"He made the blind to see, and the deaf to hear" is interpreted by many as meaning "He opened the eyes of people to the truth."

Jesus debated with many religious leaders including the opposing forces of Sadducees and Pharisees, and produced an argument which a few modern scholars think indicates that Jesus may have been a liberal Pharisee, or an Essene (although they were strict vegetarians, unlike Jesus). For many years in the first millennium, Jesus was cast as an enemy of the Pharisees, as the Pharisees had become the dominant sect of Judaism. In his role as a social reformer, and with his followers holding the inflammatory view that he was Messiah, Jesus threatened the status quo.

Jesus also preached the imminent end of the current era of history, in some sense a literal end of the world as people of his time knew it; in this sense he was an apocalyptic preacher bringing a message about the imminent end of the world the Jews knew. Some interpretations of the text, particularly amongst Protestants, suggest that Jesus opposed stringent interpretations of Jewish law, supporting the spirit of the law more than the letter of the law.

The Bible does not explicitly indicate that Jesus had any romantic relationships, and most scholars and Christians think that he had none. However, some contrary interpretations are based on references to "the disciple whom Jesus loved", usually thought to refer to John the Apostle though some think it might be a reference to Lazarus, and a lesser number still think it may be Mary Magdalene.

's shows Mary holding the dead body of Jesus.
Michelangelo's Pietà shows Mary holding the dead body of Jesus.

Arrest and trial

Jesus, is reported to have declared himself to be the long awaited Messiah, but was rejected as an apostate by the people generally considered to be the Jewish authorities. Jesus came with his followers to Jerusalem during the Passover festival, created a disturbance at the Temple by overturning the tables of the moneychangers there. He was subsequently arrested on the orders of the Sanhedrin and the High Priest, Joseph Caiaphas. He was identified to the guards by one of his Apostles, Judas Iscariot, who is portrayed as having betrayed Jesus by a kiss.

He was condemned for blasphemy by the Sanhedrin and turned over to the Romans for execution. According to the gospels, Jesus was crucified by the Romans on the reluctant orders of Pontius Pilate, bowing to the Jewish religious leaders' pressure. Some scholars argue that it was an ordinary Roman trial of a rebel. The formal charge cited in his execution was leading a rebellion: he was called the "King of the Jews" by Pontius Pilate on the titulus crucis or statement of the charge hung over the condemned on the cross (INRI).

Following the crucifixion, a deal with Pilate by Joseph of Arimathea resulted in the body being taken down and entombed, during the presence of Mary and other women, notably Mary Magdalene.

Resurrection and Ascension

According to Christian belief, Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. This event is referred to in Christian terminology as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is commemorated and celebrated by most groups who consider themselves Christians each year at Easter.

No one was a witness to the resurrection, though those who went to anoint the body found the tomb empty. Jesus' disciples encountered him again on the third day after his death, raised back to life. After the resurrection, the Gospels give various accounts of Jesus meeting various people in various places over a period of forty days before "ascending into heaven".

Most Christians — even those who do not hold to the literal truth of everything in the gospels — accept the New Testament story of the Resurrection as a historical account of an actual event central to their faith — although some liberal Christians do not accept a literal bodily resurrection (e.g. John Shelby Spong).

Additionally, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, believe that after his resurrection Jesus visited other people who believed in him around the world, including those in America, as related by the Book of Mormon.

Non-Christians generally view the New Testament account of the resurrection of Jesus as myth or fictional to varying degrees.

According to most Christian interpretations of the Bible, the theme of Jesus' preaching was that of apocalyptic repentance. Later, Jesus extensively trained twelve Apostles to continue his teachings. Most Christians who hold that Jesus' miracles were literally true, not allegory, think that the Apostles gained the power to perform healing for both Jews and Gentiles alike after they had been empowered by the Holy Spirit which he was to send to them following his Ascension.

Names and titles

Main article: Names and titles of Jesus

Jesus is derived from the Greek Ιησους (Iēsoûs) via Latin. The earliest use of Iēsoûs is found in the Septuagint, as a transliteration of the Hebrew name Yehoshua (יהושע — known in English as Joshua when transliterated directly from Hebrew), and also Yeshua (ישוע). Jesus' original name is not reported by contemporary or near-contemporary sources, but modern scholars have suggested that Jesus' name was the Aramaic ישׁוע / Yēšûaʿ (as in the Syriac New Testament) which was a fairly common name at the time. His patronymic would have been, ben Yosef, for "son of Joseph".

Christ is not a name but a title, which comes from the Greek Χριστός (Christos) via Latin, meaning anointed with chrism. The Greek form is a liberal translation of Messiah from Hebrew mashiach (משיח) or Aramaic m'shikha (משיחא), a word which occurs often in the Hebrew Bible and typically refers to the "high priest" or "king". The title Christ is also sometimes identified with the Greek chrestos, meaning "good", although the words are unrelated in terms of etymology, and Chrestus was often used as a pet name for slaves.

The Gospels record Jesus referring to himself both as Son of Man and as Son of God, but not as God the Son. However, some scholars have argued that Son of Man was an expression that functioned as an indirect first person pronoun, and that Son of God was an expression that signified "a righteous person". Evidence for these positions is provided by similar use by other persons than Jesus at a similar time to the writing of the Gospels, such as Jewish priests and judges.

In the Gospels, Jesus has many other titles, including Prophet, Lord, and King of the Jews. Together, the majority of Christians understand these titles as attesting to Jesus' divinity. Some historians argue that when used in other Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the time, these titles have other meanings, and therefore may have other meanings when used in the Gospels as well.

Cultural and historical background

Main article: Cultural and historical background of Jesus

The world in which Jesus lived was volatile, marked by cultural and political dilemmas. Culturally, Jews had to grapple with the values and philosophy of Hellenism, together with the paradox that their Torah applied only to them, but revealed universal truths. This situation led to new interpretations of the Torah, influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism.

All of the Land of Israel belonged to the Roman Empire at the time given for Jesus' birth, but it was directly ruled by King Herod the Great. After Herod's death in 4 BCE, Judea and Samaria were combined into the Roman province of Palestina, ruled by the Jewish High Priest under the supervision of a Roman procurator. Galilee, where Jesus grew up (according to the gospels), remained under the jurisdiction of Herod's son, the Tetrarch Herod Antipas.

Within Judaism, there were several parties, primarily the Sadducees, closely connected with the priesthood and the Temple, and the Pharisees, who were teachers and leaders of the synagogues. They resented Roman occupation, but at Jesus' time were not particularly political. Isolated in small communities from these main groups, by choice, lived the Essenes, whose theology and philosophy are perceived as having influenced Jesus and/or John the Baptist by many scholars. The Zealots, who advocated direct action against the Romans (eventually leading to the destruction of the temple, and the subsequent decline of the Saducees and Essenes), may have been active at this time (though this is debated).

Many Jews hoped that the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king (or Messiah) of the line of David — in their view the last legitimate Jewish regime. Most Jews believed that their history was governed by God, meaning that even the conquest of Judea by the Romans was a divine act. Therefore the Romans would be replaced by a Jewish king only through divine intervention; thus, the majority of Jews accepted Roman rule. Some like John the Baptist in the first half of the century, and Yehoshua ben Ananias in the second, claimed that a messianic age was at hand. Others believed that the kingdom should be restored immediately, through violent human action.


Main article: Relics of Jesus

There are many items that are purported to be authentic relics of the Gospel account, which are listed in the main article. The most famous alleged relics of Jesus are the Shroud of Turin, which is claimed to be the burial shroud used to wrap his body, and the Holy Grail which is said to have been used to collect his blood during his crucifixion and possibly used at The Last Supper. Many modern Christians, however, do not accept any of these as true relics. Indeed, this skepticism has been around for centuries, with Erasmus joking that so much wood formed parts of the True Cross, that Jesus must have been crucified on a whole forest.

Artistic portrayals

Main articles: Dramatic portrayals of Jesus Christ, Images of Jesus

Jesus has been portrayed in countless paintings and sculptures throughout the middle ages, renaissance, and modern times. Often he is portrayed as looking like a male from the region of the artist creating the portrait. According to historians, forensic scientists, and genetics experts, he was most likely a bronze-skinned man - resembling a modern day Palestinian or ethnic Jew.

Jesus has been featured in many films and media forms, sometimes seriously, and other times satirically. Many of these portrayals have attracted controversy, whether they were intended to be based on the Biblical accounts (such as Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ and Pier Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew) or intentionally added extra material (such as The Last Temptation of Christ). Another recurring theme is the up-dating of aspects of the life of Jesus, or imagining his Second Coming (for example, The Seventh Sign). In many films Jesus himself is a minor character, used to develop the overall themes or to provide context. For example, in Ben-Hur and The Life of Brian Jesus only appears in a few scenes.

In music, many songs refer to Jesus and Jesus provides the theme for many classical works throughout musical history.

Sources and further reading

  • The New Testament of the Bible, especially the Gospels.
  • Albright, William F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: An Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths, ISBN 0931464013
  • Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium, ISBN 019512474X
  • Ehrman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, ISBN 0195154622
  • Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity ISBN 0679767460
  • Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ ISBN 0300084579, ISBN 0300040180
  • Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8018-1654-8. A study of the earliest traditions of Israel from linguistic and archaeological evidence which also treats the teachings and followers of Jesus in that context.
  • Mendenhall, George E. Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. ISBN 0-664-22313-3. Another, less technical, study of the earliest traditions of Israel from linguistic and archaeological evidence which also treats the teachings and followers of Jesus in that context.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, Yale University Press, 1985, hardcover, 270 pages, ISBN 0300034962; trade paperback, HarperCollins reprint, 304 pages, ISBN 0060970804; trade paperback, Yale University Press, 1999, 320 pages, ISBN 0300079877
  • Messori, Vittorio. Jesus hypotheses, St Paul Publications, 1977, ISBN 0854391541; The translation from Italian Ipotesi su Gesù. An amazing and very readable book that shows how Vittorio Messori, a recognized Italian historian who didn't care about faith, explores the question of Jesus, starting from two points of view, mythical (Jesus never lived) and critical (Jesus was not God) and finally comes to the third hypothesis, the one of the faith. The author is also famous as one of the rare who did an interview with Pope John Paul II.
  • Sanders, E.P. The historical figure of Jesus, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0140144994. An up-to-date, popular, but thoroughly scholarly book.
  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1987, ISBN 0800620615. More specialistic than the previous book, though not inaccessible.
  • Theissen, Gerd, and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, Fortress Press, 2003, ISBN 0800631226. An amazing book, tough but rewarding, exceptionally detailed.
  • Theissen, Gerd. The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form. Fortress Press.
  • Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity ISBN 0060652926
  • Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels ISBN 0800614437
  • Vermes, Geza. The Religion of Jesus the Jew ISBN 0800627970
  • Vermes, Geza. Jesus in his Jewish context ISBN 0800636236
  • Walvoord, John F. Jesus Christ Our Lord. Moody Press, 1969. ISBN 0802443265
  • Wilson, Ian Jesus: The evidence ISBN 0297835297
  • Yoder, John H. The Politics of Jesus ISBN 0-8028-0734-8
  • Yogananda, Paramahansa: The Second Coming of Christ, ISBN 0876125550
  • In Quest of the Hero:(Mythos Series) — Otto Rank, Lord Fitzroy Richard Somerset Raglan and Alan Dundes, Princeton University Press, 1990, ISBN 0691020620
  • Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History.
  • The Superhuman life of Gesar of Ling — Alexandra David-Neel (A divine hero still in oral tradition)
  • The Jewish historian Josephus allegedly wrote about Jesus in Antiquities, Book 18, chapter 3, paragraph Most scholars regard this passage as a later insertion.
  • Bloodline of the Holy Grail by Laurence Gardner. A popular book, but with a hypothesis that would not be accepted by mainstream scholars.
  • Jesus and the Victory of God N.T.Wright, SPCK (London), 1996 ISBN 0281047170. Second in a projected massive five or six volume series on Christian origins, dealing with the life and death of Christ from a very open Evangelical perspective. The author is now Bishop of Durham (Church of England).
  • Michael H. Hart, The 100, Carol Publishing Group, July 1992, paperback, 576 pages, ISBN 0806513500

See also

External links



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