From the CLC Bible Companion
Jesus lived in a specific time and place in history, so we can discover many reliable facts about his life, death and resurrection.
THE WORLD OF JESUS
Jesus was born into the Jewish world of first century Israel. Although some aspects of the first century world were similar to life in today’s world, other aspects now seem strange and unfamiliar. To understand Jesus and his message better, it is important to get to know this time and place. Helpfully, it is well documented in various historical sources.
Jewish writings after the Old Testament.
At the end of the Old Testament, some of the Jews had returned to their land after exile in Babylon (see Nehemiah and Ezra). The period of time before the start of the New Testament is known as the intertestamental period. A number of Jewish books written during this time can be found in the Apocrypha section of some Bibles. These include the two books of Maccabees, written around 100 BC. 1 and 2 Maccabees tell the story of Judas Maccabeus and his companions, who led a Jewish revolt in 167–164 BC against Antiochus Epiphanes, their Syrian ruler. Later, when the Romans took over the region in 63 BC, many Jews longed for another revolutionary leader like Judas to rescue them from foreign power. These writings record some of the stories and events from the Jews’ recent history that would have been well-known and important in Jesus’ day.
Dead Sea Scrolls.
In 1947, a shepherd found a collection of ancient scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea. The scrolls from this and ten other caves (also known as the Qumran texts, because the caves are near the site of Qumran) include copies of every book of the Old Testament except Esther. There are also some commentaries on the Old Testament and other writings that describe the beliefs of some Jews, a group often known as the Essenes. They wrote about a great Messiah who they believed would save them from their troubles. The scrolls help us to understand the beliefs of some Jewish people at the time of Jesus, and remind us that there were many different groups believing different things in the ancient world, much like in society today.
The Jewish historian Josephus lived from AD 37 to shortly after AD 100. He wrote The Jewish War, which recounts what happened to the Jews after the Maccabean revolt. Josephus is the most important source of information outside the New Testament about life in Palestine during the time of Jesus.
During the time of Jesus, Palestine was under the control of the Roman Empire. Roman historians, such as Tacitus and Suetonius, record how the empire viewed the Jewish people, and also occasionally mention the early Christian movement.
Jesus lived alongside other people with homes and jobs. Archaeologists have found buildings and other items of interest that show what life was like in first-century Palestine. They have also discovered specific locations that match the record of the New Testament, such as the village of Bethany (e.g. John 11:18) or the Praetorium, the official residence of the Roman governor in Jerusalem (e.g. John 18:28).
THE LIFE OF JESUS
It is essential to remember that the story of Jesus’ life is grounded in real history. By comparing the historical information given by the Gospels (e.g. Luke 2:1; 3:1) with what is known about the officials they mention, Jesus’ birth can be dated about the year 4 BC. He was born in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, but spent his early years in Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee, in the north. When he was around thirty years old, he began a ministry of teaching and healing, which took him all over the land. He had many followers, but there were twelve special disciples who were with him throughout his ministry. Jesus’ teaching and actions frustrated the Jewish leaders, who were afraid he would disrupt the fragile peace they had with the Romans. In AD 30 or 33, Jesus was arrested by the Jewish authorities and handed over to the Romans to be crucified. On the third day after his burial, some of his followers found that his tomb was empty, and met with him again, alive from the dead (see especially 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). This account of Jesus’ life, drawn from the Gospels, can be matched with other ancient historical sources. For instance, the Jewish historian Josephus recorded the following information about Jesus:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.”
Josephus’ work was written around AD 90, so it was within living memory of the life of Jesus. Josephus also tells his readers about John the Baptist and James, the brother of Jesus. The life of Jesus, and the other people and events recorded in the Gospels, were not closely kept secrets, but public knowledge.
THE GOSPELS ABOUT JESUS
Most of our information about Jesus comes from the New Testament, and especially from the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. “Gospel” means “good news”. These books were written to tell the world what was important about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They are not complete biographies of Jesus, and they do not give us all the information that we might wish we had. However, they contain all that we need to know in order to understand the significance of Jesus and what he has done for us.
The Gospels in the New Testament can be relied upon as accurate pictures of Jesus. Many of the people and places mentioned in the New Testament Gospels have been verified by other historical documents and archaeology. Luke points out that he had spent much time researching his Gospel and speaking to eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4).
All the Gospels were written within living memory of Jesus’ life, and so the first readers would have been able to check that they were accurate. It is interesting to note that later on, many years after Jesus’ time, other stories containing imaginative and fanciful ideas were written about Jesus, such as the Gospel of Thomas, from the second century AD.
However, the early Christians refused to believe them and these documents did not become part of the New Testament. On the other hand, the four Gospels were accepted because they gave a clear and unembellished account of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is significant that there are four Gospels in the New Testament, rather than only one. This can sometimes seem confusing, especially when the Gospels contain differences in detail about the same event. For instance, John says that Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple when he began his preaching and healing ministry (John 2:13-21). Matthew, Mark and Luke say it happened shortly before the end of his life (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46). Did the event happen twice? Or did one or more of the Gospel writers put it in the wrong place?
We must remember that the Gospels do not intend to give us a diary of the events of Jesus’ life. The authors arranged their material about Jesus in their own ways in order to help their readers understand the significance of these events. John placed this episode at the beginning of his Gospel because it illustrates how Jesus’ ministry was replacing the religion of the temple. Matthew, Mark and Luke want to show how this event led the Jewish authorities to put Jesus to death (see, e.g., Luke 19:47).
However, this difference does not make their writing less accurate. Good history is not simply a list of facts, but is also a knowledge of why the facts are important. Sometimes the facts need to be arranged in a certain way, or particular elements need to be stressed, so that the significance of Jesus can be understood. The Gospel writers are like film editors, who cut and paste the story of Jesus so that we too can understand him in the way they did.
Because Jesus was a living historical figure, we should not be surprised that his life cannot be confined by a single account (see John 21:25). The fact that there are four accounts of his life is something to be celebrated, not ignored. Each Gospel writer provides a unique perspective on Jesus’ person and work.
Together, the four Gospels help us to meet with the Jesus who lived, died and rose again two thousand years ago.
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