Christ of Nazareth

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Seventeenth-century engraving of Jesus walking on water while Peter sinks, by Matthaus Merian. Fortean Picture Library.

Christ of Nazareth/Jesus of Nazareth

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Just as "Buddha" is not a name, but rather a title given to Siddhartha Gautama, "Christ" is a title given to Jesus of Nazareth. The name comes from the Greek word christos, meaning "Anointed One." So although people often make reference to "Jesus Christ," the correct term is actually "Jesus, the Christ."

The title is given to the man Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus, from the town of Nazareth), who would have been known to his contemporaries as Yeshua ben Yosef (Joshua, son of Joseph). If Jesus' name had been transliterated directly from Hebrew into English, he would have been known to the world today as Joshua. But because the documents written about Jesus, the biblical Gospels, were written originally in Greek, the Hebrew Yeshua became the Greek transliteration Iasous. Iasous, transliterated much later, became the Latin Jesu and the English Jesus. So it remains an ironic quirk of linguistic fate that although Christians are told "there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved," the name they are given would not even have been recognized by Jesus' mother, let alone anyone living in Nazareth at the time.

The events of Jesus' life have been told many times in stories, songs, and movies. Although the four biblical Gospels do not always agree with each other about events and times, a composite story emerges that at least provides a framework for reconstructing the basic details.

The story begins with Luke's account of Mary, a maiden, perhaps a young teenager, who is engaged to a carpenter named Joseph. She is told by the angel Gabriel she is going to become the mother of one "who will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you... so the holy one about to be born will be called the Son of God."

In those days, becoming pregnant after betrothal was considered a crime punishable by stoning death if the future husband, knowing the child was not his, was of a mind to press charges. But Joseph received a confirmation visit from an angel. Risking social ostracism, he took Mary to be his wife, "but he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son."

Nine months later, Caesar Augustus issued an empire-wide taxation, requiring everyone to journey to his hometown to register and pay the required fee. The couple returned to Joseph's birthplace, Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a stable, "because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7).

There the family was visited by shepherds and, twelve days later, according to tradition, wise men, or Magi, from the East.

The Magi were the visitors who caused all the trouble. They had followed a star that led them not to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem, five miles away. There they inquired about the newly born "King of the Jews."

This was news to Herod, who, as king of Judea, thought he was "King of the Jews." Herod tried to use the Magi as spies to lead him to the baby. When this failed, he issued a decree often labeled in folklore as "the slaughter of the innocents," a command that all male babies under the age of two were to be killed. (This decree is why some believe the Magi's visit could have been as long as two years after Jesus' birth. There is a lot of difference between a newborn baby and a child of two. Besides this, though Luke's account has Mary and Joseph in a stable, Matthew, who describes the Magi, has them living in a house.)

Joseph and Mary escaped the slaughter by fleeing to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod died. They returned to Nazareth, where the Bible says nothing about Jesus' life for the next thirty years except for one intriguing story. Each year his family traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. When he was twelve, just about the age for a modern Bar Mitzva, the Gospel of Luke tells how his parents returned home only to discover young Jesus was not with them. This by no means reflected on their parenting skills. It would have been common to travel in large family groups. Mary and Joseph probably thought their son was with a relative. When they discovered his absence, however, they immediately returned to Jerusalem. They found him holding court with the Temple scholars and religious leaders, amazing them with his knowledge. When questioned by his parents, Jesus gave only an enigmatic reply: "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49). It was a portent of things to come.

Eighteen years went by, often referred to as "the silent years," before Jesus was heard from in scripture again. Many fanciful stories were later written about this period of his life. Middle Age monks and the Qur'an of Islam told of him playing with friends, forming toy doves out of clay and then "breathing life into them" so they could fly away. Some accounts tell of Jesus traveling to India and consulting with Hindu holy men and Buddhist Bodhisattvas. Others have him traveling to England, accompanying his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, as he plied the tin trade. (Although the Bible mentions Joseph of Arimathea, it fails to make any family connections. He is simply known as "an upright man" who, after voting against the council that decided to arrest Jesus, offered his tomb as Jesus' burial vault.)

The only documentation for the story thus far is found in the first two chapters of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke. The remaining Gospels according to Mark and John pick up the narrative beginning with Jesus' baptism.

John the Baptist had been preaching and baptizing people in the waters of the Jordan River. He called his trademark a "baptism of repentance." People flocked to hear him even though his preaching style could be called, at best, abrasive.

"You brood of vipers!" he said to the religious leaders of Jerusalem. "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Matthew 3:7).

When Jesus stepped forward for baptism, John recognized in him the blessing of God, the promised one for whom John was preparing the way. Something happened, although the Gospels are not clear as to exactly what it was. The spirit of God, "like" or "in the form of" a dove, descended upon Jesus. Whether everyone saw it, or just Jesus and John, this event marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, which lasted (the four Gospels seem to disagree) either one or three years.

But before Jesus could begin his work, he had to overcome a trial. For forty days he was alone in the desert, tempted by the devil. Three times Satan appeared to him, first telling Jesus to make bread from stone and then to show off his powers as the son of God by leaping from the pinnacle of the Temple. Finally Jesus was offered "all the kingdoms of the world" if he would only bow down and worship Satan. But three times Jesus resisted by quoting Hebrew scripture. In the end, he passed the test. He was worthy to begin.

Calling twelve disciples to be his followers, Jesus began to preach, heal the sick, and teach, most often in the form of parables, stories with a message. His Sermon on the Mount, containing the famous Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer, is full of passages that have become the standard fare of popular idiom: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.... You are the salt of the earth.... You are the light of the world.... Love your enemies.... Our Father, Who art in heaven.... Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.... No man can serve two masters.... Consider the lilies.... Knock and the door will be opened.... Narrow is the gate that leads to Heaven."

Marcus Borg is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group committed to what has sometimes been called the "search for the historical Jesus." In his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, he summarizes the life of Jesus in this way:

The historical Jesus was a spirit person, one of those figures in human history with an experiential awareness of the reality of God.... He was a teacher of wisdom who regularly used the classic forms of wisdom speech (parables and memorable short sayings known as aphorisms) to teach a subversive and alternative wisdom.... Jesus was a social prophet, similar to the classic prophets of Israel. As such, he criticized the elites of his time, was an advocate of an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities.... He was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the Christian Church.

If Jesus had continued in the path of itinerant preacher and miracle worker, he no doubt would have faded away into history or at best be remembered as just another Jewish visionary. There were, in those days, many who made great claims to religious insight and each had a following. But it was what happened at the end of his life that gave rise to what would become the Christian religion.

Crucifixion was a common Roman form of execution. It was, by design, a very prolonged and painful way to die. Public, conspicuous death on a cross was meant to serve as a deterrent to other would-be criminals.

Jesus had become a threat to established religious and secular power. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before Passover had excited the crowds, who were already in a patriotic, religious frenzy. When they cut palm branches to place before him and threw down their garments along his path, they were, in effect, offering the "red carpet" treatment accorded to visiting dignitaries. But when they began to sing the coronation song from Psalm 118, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.... Hosanna in the highest," there was no question that they were prepared to recognize him as the promised Messiah who would lead them to freedom from Rome and restore Jewish nationalism.

By allowing this to happen, Jesus was deliberately throwing down a challenge to both political and religious authority. When warned by religious leaders to "rebuke your disciples," to shut them up and forestall a riot, Jesus made his challenge obvious. "I tell you," he said, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out" (Luke 19:40). From that moment, his death by crucifixion was almost certain.

It happened less than a week later. On Thursday, while Jesus celebrated the Passover Seder meal with his followers, one of them, Judas, quietly slipped out into the night. After collecting his betrayal fee of thirty pieces of silver he led a group of Roman Centurions to the quiet garden where Jesus was praying while the disciples slept. After an all-night trial in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, ineffectively tried to pass Jesus over to Jewish authorities, on Friday morning at about 9 o'clock, Jesus was crucified according to Roman custom. He died at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and was taken off the cross just before sunset.

Because Sabbath laws forbid work on Saturday, Jesus' body was never fully prepared for burial. At first light on Sunday a group of women who had cared for Jesus went to his tomb, intending to complete the burial ritual. But on that morning, which became known as Easter, they found the tomb empty. They ran back to tell the scattered disciples Jesus' body was gone. He had risen from the dead. Very soon after, and for the next month and a half, others made the same claim. Some five hundred people, according to the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:6), saw the resurrected Christ.

Ever since then, people have argued about what happened. Some say it was a hoax perpetrated by hysterical fanatics, and that perhaps the women who claimed to have gone to the tomb to honor the body actually took it. Others wonder whether someone else might have taken the body to deceive the disciples. Apologists, however, argue that such deception would have had little point. Furthermore, some doubt the claims, even the existence, of the eyewitnesses mentioned later by Paul, while apologists see no reason for such doubt.

Whether the story is historical truth or legend, one fact stands out. The early believers were so convinced that the events following the death of Jesus of Nazareth actually happened that they galvanized into a movement that has lasted right up to the present. In terms of sheer numbers, significance, and influence on later world history, Christianity is one of the biggest religions the world has ever known.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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