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To identify oneself as a Christian is to declare Jesus the lord and saviour of the world. The heavy
emphasis that Christians place on that declaration is crucial for understanding the nature of
Christianity, for to be a Christian is to make a commitment of faith in the doctrine that Jesus was
the incarnate son of God.
We know very little about the early years of Jesus, before he began his public life around the age
of 30. Luke and Matthew recount a series of extraordinary events surrounding his birth in
Bethlehem, a small town just southeast of Jerusalem. We are told that his childhood home was in
Nazareth, a tiny Jewish village on a rocky hillside in the predominantly Greek-speaking northern
Region Galilee, and we assume that he learned the trade of his father (a carpenter or builder).
But from his youth we have only one story: at the age of 12, after spending the High Holidays in
Jerusalem with his family, he is said to have become so absorbed in discussing the subtleties of
Jewish law with the teachers at the temple that his family started home without him.
His public years begin with his baptism by his older cousin, John the Baptist, during which he
sees the heavens open and the holy spirit descend like a dove. Interpreting this mystical vision as
a call to prophecy or ministry, he withdraws into the wilderness on the eastern side of the
Jordan River, on a kind of spiritual retreat. There he is joined by Satan, who offers him a series
of temptations, each of which he refuses.
On his return from the wilderness Jesus goes to Capernaum, a town where his mother, Mary,
now lives with other family members. The reason for leaving Nazareth is never explained, but
one theory suggests that it may have had something to do with the death of his father, Joseph.
Soon after his return from the wilderness, Jesus attends a synagogue service in Nazareth and
volunteers to do one of the Torah readings. The passage he is given to read speaks of a time to
come when the lame shall walk and the blind will see. He then declares to those present that this
prophecy is now fulfilled. This episode sets the stage for a series of miracles and at the same
time underlines the idea that he has come to fulfill prophecies of the Hebrew Bible.
Jesus recruits 12 male disciples, most of whom make their living as fishermen. He also attracts a
number of women followers, among them Mary Magdalene, who play important roles. For the
next year or more, Jesus travels the region around Capernaum, working miracles, teaching how
to apply Jewish law to everyday life, and telling parables many of which point to an impending
apocalypse that will lead to a new era of peace and righteousness he calls the kingdom of Gods.
His main venues are synagogues or private houses, but sometimes he preaches to larger crowds
who gather to witness his miraculous cures, which include healing the blind and even raising the
When he goes to Jerusalem with his disciples for the high holy days around Passover, he causes a
disturbance at the temple by accusing the money changers of cheating on the rate charged to
exchange regular Greek and Roman coins for the traditional Hebrew coins required to make offerings. On the Sunday before Passover, he fulfills another prophecy by riding into the town on
The people honour him by placing palm leaves in the road before he rides by and shouting his
praises. A few days later, while praying in a garden outside Jerusalem, he is arrested by a mixed
party of Roman soldiers and servants of the temple priests whose authority he has challenged.
When one disciple tries to resist, Jesus tells him to put his sword away.
Taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Jesus is accused of perverting the people and
claiming to be the king of the Jews. Together with several other condemned men, he is paraded
through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of execution, a hill called Golgotha, where he is
nailed to a cross and left to die. 2 days later, on the morning following the Sabbath, some of his
women followers go to the tomb where his body was placed on the Friday, only to find it empty.
In one account an angel tells the women that God has raised him from the dead; in others he
appears to the disciples himself. In any event, it became the Christian belief that he had been
resurrected and had gone to sit at the right hand of God in heaven, from where he would soon
return to judge all persons and usher in the kingdom of God. The Greek term christos was used
as a synonym for messiah, and so he became known as Jesus the Christ, now shortened to
In Marks account, a Roman soldier who is standing by as Jesus gasps his last breath is moved to
say Truly this was a son of God. It is fitting that Mark attributes this comment to a Roman
soldier rather than one of Jesus followers, for the Christian movement soon grew beyond its
origins as a Jewish sect. Within a generation of his death, his followers had decided that his
message was not for the Jews alone, and that anyone could become a Christian. In that decision
lay the seeds of Christianitys development as 1 of the worlds 3 greatest missionary religions
In the accounts of Jesus lifeknown as gospels, from the Greek evangel, meaning good
newshe performs miracles. He commands his followers to love their enemies as well as their
friends, and in word and example emphasizes forgiveness to a degree that is probably not
exceeded in any other religious tradition.
For more than a century scholars have agreed that, however suspect some of the details may be,
it does demonstrate the existence of a community of faith centred on belief in Jesus as the risen
lord. Whether or not Jesus actually did or said everything the texts attribute to him, the Christian
message was crystalizing into recognizable form by the middle of the first century. The Christian
movement was coming into focus, reporting the life of Jesus on earth, but also preaching an
interpretation of that life as cosmically significant.
More than 3 centuries later, when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman
Empire, church leaders made a list of the writings they acknowledged to be scripture. That
standard list, or canon, of books and letters is what Christians know as the New Testament. It
includes the gospels attributed to 4 of Jesus disciples: Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. By then,
those 4 accounts had been accepted throughout Christendom. It is helpful to think of each gospel
as the product of an individual author with his own particular interpretation and audience in mindMarks account is the simplest, shortest, most straightforward, and likely the earliest of the 4
canonical gospels. It starts not with Jesus birth, but with the beginning of his mature ministry
following his baptism by John the Baptist, who prophesies that Jesus will be greater than John
After a 40-day retreat in the wilderness, during which he wrestles with the temptations of Satan,
Jesus launches his ministry in Galilee, proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand. His local
reputation spreads as he performs healing miracles. He also violates the Sabbath law by picking
grain and healing on the day of rest, and when he is challenged for doing so, he takes the notion
of Jewish legal authority into his own hands, declaring that the Sabbath is made for people rather
than people for the Sabbath. It is in response to this apparent arrogance, Mark suggests, that the
Pharisees conspire to do away with him.
Jesus selects from among his male followers a group of 12 as his inner circle of disciples.
Accompanied by them, he continues to heal, teach, and challenge the priorities of religious
authority. Eventually he goes to Jerusalem, and over the course of a week in Jerusalem, he
disputes with the religious authorities, celebrates the Passover with his disciples, is betrayed by
one of them (Judas), and is arrested. Brought to trial before Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus
does not deny that he is the king of the Jews and offers no defence.
Jesus is executed on the cross, crying out a quotation from one of the Hebrew psalms, My God,
my God, why have you forsaken me? As he breathes his last, the Roman centurion identifies
him as truly a son of God, and before the Sabbath begins, his body is placed in a tomb, which
is sealed by a large stone. The day after the Sabbath, 3 women followers go to the tomb to anoint
the body, only to find the stone rolled away and the bod