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Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
An Historical Investigation
At the heart of the good news of the New Testament is the person of Jesus Christ. This means that fundamentally the Christian faith is neither a philosophical system, nor a set of doctrines or a conglomeration of rules, rituals and customs but is a way of life centred on the person of Jesus Christ. Essentially the first confession of faith made by the early Christians was that Jesus , which literally means Saviour was the Christ. For this reason we say that the message of the New Testament is effectively Christocentric (centred on Christ). It is imperative therefore for every person who claims to be a Christian to become familiar with Jesus' identity and work by asking who this historical Jesus was. According to the Synoptic gospels, it was precisely this same question that was posed to his disciples on their way to
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? (Mk 8:27)
The numerous answers given to this question in Biblical literature and all subsequent theological writings throughout the ages suggest that this Christological question was not always unanimously proclaimed. Already in the New Testament the disciples point to the wide span of opinion:
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah [Christos] (Mk 8:28-29).
Indeed from the first days of the Christian community there have been many answers given to this question - a clear reflection of the difficulty of encapsulating the mystery of the person of Jesus. The various titles used by the early Christians to express their faith included: prophet, teacher, shepherd, Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, Lord, second Adam, bridegroom, light of the World, the Alpha and the Omega, the High Priest, the Suffering Servant, Saviour, Logos. Therefore already from the Biblical texts one can detect a rich variety of titles indicating the profound depth of the question at hand. Indeed an entire discipline within theology is committed to the systematic study of the person and work of Jesus Christ and is known as Christology.
The Meaning of the name 'Christ'
The English word 'Christ' which translates the Greek word 'Christos' and the Hebrew term, Messiah' means the 'anointed One' of God. The answer given by Peter in the synoptic gospels and by Martha in the Johannine gospel, that Jesus is the 'Christ' has formed the foundational confession of faith concerning Jesus. The term 'Christ' is significant as it already underscores the intimate relationship (or communion) between Jesus and God, His Father and the Holy Spirit. The fact that Christ is the 'anointed One' implies first and foremost that Jesus cannot be thought of apart from His Father and the Holy Spirit since it is God the Father who wills that Jesus be anointed by the Holy Spirit who thereby anoints Christ making Him be what He is. Secondly as a corollary to the first point, being the 'anointed One' of God indicates that the Father and the Holy Spirit actively participate in the ministry of Christ. Therefore any individualistic understanding of Christ is incompatible with the person and work of Jesus. Christ is a relational being drawing His identity from His relation with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This minor yet important point highlights that Jesus bestowed upon all human persons and the world at large this gift of divine communion enjoyed by Him by virtue of becoming human Himself. In other words Christ's abiding presence in the Church today, as proclaimed and testified by the book of Acts for example, ensures that the entire cosmos is also incorporated into the filial relationship between Christ and His Father. Therefore all human persons who are in Christ acquire their particular personhood in the same communal relationship inherent in the life of the Trinity.
Aspects of Jesus' Historical Life
Historically what is certain about the person of Jesus is that He appeared on earth in conjunction with John the Baptist , gathered disciples around Himself forming a symbolic group, 'the Twelve' and began his brief preaching ministry proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, for which He was executed. Very little is known about the life of Jesus prior to His baptism by John the Baptism. Born shortly before the death of King Herod the Great (4BC) in Bethlehem, He was known as a Galilean from Nazareth. For this reason the every day language of Jesus would have been Aramaic, which had long been the preferred popular language after the Babylonian exile. Yet that he could argue with the Pharisees on issues of biblical interpretation points to the fact that Jesus would have had a knowledge of Hebrew as well. Some scholars have even argued that Jesus could have had some knowledge of Greek since it was the language of the Gentiles with whom he also interacted. Therefore we would claim that Jesus was literate, spoke Aramaic and was familiar with Hebrew and Koine Greek, the Greek language of the time.
Furthermore, the Scriptures claim that he was from the lineage of David (cf Rom 1:3) , Israel's greatest king and the prototype of the royal Messiah. The virginal birth of Jesus is affirmed only by the gospel according Matthew:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Mt 1:18-25).
In regards to the virginity of the mother of Jesus, the Orthodox Christian tradition claims that she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of her son and for this reason is called 'ever-virgin' (aeiparthenos). Many argue that this could not be the case as the New Testament affirms that Jesus had other brothers (cf Mt 13:55). In answer to this apparent difficulty, the Patristic tradition has offered two different answers: firstly some Fathers of the Church rightly stressed that in the Scriptures the words 'brothers' and 'sisters' could refer to the wider family, namely cousins. It is true that to this day Middle-Eastern cultures refer to their extended family as 'brothers'. The second view is that the brothers of Jesus referred to in the gospels could be stepbrothers of Jesus from a possible prior marriage of Joseph. Yet what is certain is that there is no evidence from the New Testament suggesting that Mary had other children besides Jesus. Besides, the fact that from the cross, Jesus committed his mother to the care of John is a strong indication not only that Joseph was deceased by the time of Jesus' crucifixion but that Jesus was Mary's only child.
The Historicity of Jesus
Before we begin to reflect upon the person and work of Jesus as a whole, we will investigate the historicity of the person of Jesus since many people today have raised serious doubts not only about the Christian message in general but on the fact that Jesus actually existed. Since the entire Christian faith is based on the person of Jesus it is fundamental to understand that Christianity is based on a historical reality and not a fictitious myth. In seeking to verify the historicity of Jesus, we will not begin with the New Testament testimony since many critical scholars have rejected the historical value concerning the person of Jesus. For this reason we will examine the non-Christian sources, both pagan and Jewish which refer to the Jesus and His movement.
Even though it is true that the evidence for Jesus overwhelmingly comes from the Biblical literature yet there is still some scattered information from other sources which either directly or indirectly refer specifically to Jesus or to the expanding Church he left behind after His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Therefore the methodology employed for determining the historicity of the life of Jesus in this case will be an approach called "evidential intersection" or "internal/external coincidence" . This implies that a careful study of the non-Christian literary sources will be undertaken to see to what extent they coincide with the New Testament. Then those New Testament stories which do in fact correspond to the extra-Biblical data will be taken to be trustworthy. In this way we shall begin to form an historically trustworthy image of Jesus Christ and it is to this investigation that we now turn.
Explicit Non-Christian references to Jesus
A Jewish historian named Josephus who was born in 37AD and raised in Jerusalem has made one of the most explicit references to Jesus. Historians believe that Josephus would have heard about Jesus as a boy but that he did not record this information until the nineties whilst in Rome. Being Jewish he had nothing to gain by referring to Jesus and yet he did. Aware of the 'Nazarene sect' as he called it, he wrote:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
From the above quote we learn several facts about Jesus which are also affirmed in the New Testament. In recording that Nicodemus, an eminent Jew of the period addressed Jesus as teacher, the Gospels substantiate what is recorded by Josephus. The Gospel according to St John writes:
He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (Jn 3:2).
That Josephus claims that Jesus gained great popularity is well attested in the Scriptures. The book of Acts records the growing number of Jews and Greeks (that is Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews) from within Israel who had been won over by Jesus. Josephus also refers to the Roman trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate in precisely the same way that the New Testament gospels convey it. Lastly Josephus' mention of the resurrection of Jesus in writing that 'he appeared to them' is in line with the Gospel accounts. Josephus' understanding of the convictions of Christians towards Jesus is, on general terms, therefore the same as that of the New Testament writers.
Whilst Josephus was not hostile in his description of the identity and work of Jesus, the same cannot be said of the writings of Tacitus, another explicit non-Christian source regarding Jesus. He was considered one of the greatest historians of the period. At the time of writing his Annals of Imperial Rome in which is described the great fire of Rome in 64AD, Tacitus was the governor of the province of Asia. In his history, Tacitus argued that the people of the time believed that Emperor Nero himself was to blame for the fire. Yet, Tacitus continued that in trying to divert the blame from himself, Nero gave the strong impression that "the notoriously depraved Christians, as they are popularly called" were responsible for the terrible fire. Tacitus continues to describe the originator of the Christians in the following way:
Christus, from whom the name [Christians] had its origins, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, [in] Judaea.
The gospels' record of the accusation against Jesus which led to his crucifixion, namely that he was the Christ, the king of the Jews, is consistent with Tacitus' account. Tacitus also precisely details that Jesus was tried at the hands of Pontius Pilate, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Mention is also made to the rapid spread of the movement to Rome:
… the deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, broke afresh in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.
Even though Tacitus' negativity towards Christianity is apparent when he calls it a "deadly superstition", an "evil", and "hideous and shameful" yet he was historically precise in his references that Jesus was executed in Judaea under the governorship of Pontius Pilate and that his movement had reached Rome. Whilst Tacitus omits to explain why Christianity after the death of Jesus 'broke afresh' since all movements usually died with the death of their leader, the Gospels would explain this phenomenon in terms of God raising Christ from the dead.
Pliny was a friend of Tacitus and governor of Bithynia an adjoining province where Tacitus was also governor at the same time. Writing about contemporary events, Pliny described the followers of Jesus in the following way:
[Christians] met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternatively among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god.
This important detail sheds light on the way the early Christians came together to worship Jesus as the Son of God. Furthermore, in his dislike towards the Christians, Pliny had ordered that they renounce their follower publicly. Upon arresting them he demanded that they "revile publicly the name of Christ" which he soon came to see that they would rather die than to obey such an order.
Suetonius was a historian who recorded events also described by Tacitus but did so much earlier than Tacitus. In his history, he records a serious event of 49AD in which the Emperor Claudius forced the Jewish community residing in Rome out of Italy. In a similar way, Suetonius lays blame on the followers of 'Chrestus' whom he believed to be "a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition" Suetonius believed that 'Chrestus' and his followers were dangerous to the peace and harmony of Roman society. Even though the description is negative, as one would expect since Christianity was known as a an 'illicit religion' until Emperor Constantine officially recognized it in the forth century, the fact is that the historical existence of Jesus is not denied.
Implicit Non-Christian references to Jesus
A second century Greek, Phlegon was a historian whose writings have survived through references made by others to him. For example, Origen, one of the greatest fathers of the Church who lived in the third century referred to the writings of Phlegon on several occasions. Origen mentions Phlegon as indicating that Jesus had in fact prophesied about the destruction of Temple which took place in 70AD. Elsewhere Origen directly cites from Phlegon that Jesus,
While alive was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.
From this implicit data Origen clearly shows that Phlegon was aware of the life and work of Jesus.
• Rabbi Eliezer
A Jewish teacher by the name of Eliezer who lived between 70-200AD referred to Jesus though he did not specifically mention Him by name in writing about the Old Testament prophet, Balaam. In interpreting an ancient oracle of Balaam, Eliezer believed that Balaam's prophetic words were meant against Jesus:
Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man born of a woman who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore God gave power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spoke: "Give heed that you go not astray after that man; for it is written, God is not a man that he should lie. And if he says he is God he is a liar, and he will deceive and say that he departs and comes again at the end. He says and he shall not perform.
It is obvious that the man Eliezer is referring to in his own interpretation of Balaam's ancient oracle is Jesus whose followers were rapidly growing. This again highlights the fact that Jesus' historical existence could not be doubted even by those who were against Him.
Furthermore, a post 70AD Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud records the fate of Jesus in the following way:
Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald had cried, "He is being led out for stoning, because he pas practiced sorcery and led Israel and enticed them to apostasy. Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come forward and declare it". As nothing was brought forward to his defence, he was hanged on Passover Eve.
Although the interpretation of Jesus is quite contrary to the testimony of the New Testament, the historicity of the existence of such a person is never questioned.
This brief investigation of the extra-Biblical sources examined above has brought to light that Jesus was a genuine figure of history. The major difference between Christians and others regarding the historical person and mission of Jesus is in the area of interpretation. It will be the Gospels who will attribute deity to Jesus. However for such perspectives on the identity and ministry of Jesus Christianity is entirely dependent on the New Testament. Yet the following conclusion can be drawn for now:
a. Jesus was a Jew born sometime between 10-4BC during the reign of Augustus Caesar and during the governorship of Herod I over Palestine
b. He was a religious leader and founder of a non-Jewish 'sect' as the Roman historians of the time called it.
c. He was a wise teacher who spoke with great authority
d. He came before John the Baptist.
e. He was executed during the governorship of Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.
f. He left behind Him followers who rapidly spread his teaching throughout the Roman Empire.
g. His early followers worshipped Him as God and sang hymns upon gathering on a fixed day (Sunday).
On the other hand, it would be apostles of Jesus, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would came to recognize Jesus as the Christ (the anointed One of God) and come to identify Him with the God (Yawheh) of the Old Testament. For this reason the Gospel of St John would record Jesus' words that "I and the Father are one" (Jn 14:28). Moreover, it would be the early Christian community who would come to refer to Jesus as Lord, a title used proper to God alone since, as Son of God, they came to see that the man Jesus was also God with exactly the same divinity as His Father.
Therefore to really know Jesus Christ is to receive Him as He appears in the Church's canonical New Testament writings. Ultimately, as to the exact historical events one cannot be entirely sure. Yet what is all important is the claim made by the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the real Jesus is the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, the book of Acts, the writings of Paul and John, Peter, James and Jude. Therefore to 'know' Christ requires a thorough and critical study of the Scriptures which means becoming disciples of Jesus. And it is this belief in 'the one Lord Jesus Christ' as this proclamation is described in the Scriptures which continues to form the fundamental confession of faith for Christianity. A reflection of the New Testament titles to Jesus will concern us in the next issue of Vema.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College< Back to the articles list