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By virtue of the impact of Christianity, Jesus (also known as Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth) is one of the most influential people in history. European literature, art and music would be unimaginable without their Christian heritage, and translations of the Christian Bible number among the foundational literature of many languages. Most of the world now follows the Gregorian calendar, based on the supposed number of years since Jesus' birth.

The question "Who was Jesus?" seems a simple one, yet the answers which have been proposed defy easy summary. Most people regard him as the founder of Christianity. Christians (with some exceptions) worship him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity. Muslims recognize Jesus as one of the prophets of Islam, without attributing divinity to him. Even humanists who reject the religious claims, or who doubt the miracles attributed to him, have been known to admire Jesus as a great moral teacher. Mormons believe that Jesus came to North America and preached to the inhabitants after leaving Judea. Jews do not believe that Jesus was divine, nor that he was the Messiah or a prophet.

Among historians, almost every aspect of Jesus' life is either unknown or disputed. Most scholars would accept the description of him as a first-century Palestinian Jew--more specifically, as an itinerant preacher/healer/exorcist active in Galilee and Judea. We may be reasonably confident that he was baptized by John the Baptist in the AD 20s, and crucified at the command of Roman governor Pontius Pilate during the late 20s or early 30s AD. With less certainty, scholars have characterized Jesus as a wisdom teacher; a social reformer; a rabbi; a folk magician; or an apocalyptic who expected the world to end. Especially controversial would be the suggestions that he intended to found the religion of Christianity, or that he believed (or declared) himself to be the Messiah.


Jesus has the same name as Old Testament hero Joshua, whose Hebrew name Yehoshua (יהושוע) becomes Yeshua (ישוע) in Aramaic (Jesus' native language). Greek being the lingua franca of the Roman Empire as well as early Christianity, Yeshua came to be rendered as Iesous (Ιησους). It entered English by way of Latin (Iēsus). [1]

Christ is a title and not a part of his name. Christos (χριστος) is the Greek translation for the Hebrew Moshiach ("Messiah"), and literally means "anointed one." The original reference was to the family of ceremonies for crowning a king, or ordaining a prophet, which involved pouring oil upon the head. Whether these and other titles were used during his lifetime, or by him, and what they might have meant, are all uncertain.

Jesus is often referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth," after the town where he grew up, sometimes as a secular alternative to "Jesus Christ."


None of the historical sources give the year of Jesus' birth, the year of his death, or his age at death in unambiguous form. Tradition says that he was born towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. Some of the earliest estimates of his birth are 6-7 BC, and it is widely agreed that Jesus was executed during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (AD 26-36). Biblical scholars believe he lived roughly 33 1/2 years. Recent scholarship has focused on the years AD 29, 30, or 33 as the most likely possibilities of the date of his crucifixion.


The major source of historical knowledge about Jesus is the Christian Gospels, which are based on documents written within living memory of the events described in them. The Letters of St Paul, which are older than the Gospels, also attest to the historical reality of Jesus. There are no contemporary references to Jesus from non-Christian sources, although there are a few from the following decades, in writers such as Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. Some writers therefore deny that Jesus was a historical figure at all.

The canonical gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are religious biographies that stress Jesus' fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, his teachings on the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven, and the miracles which attended his life and death. The oldest of these, Mark, is usually dated to within a few years of AD 70. John is generally regarded as the latest, though the dates proposed for it vary widely (from the AD 70's to the early 2nd century). The four are linked not only by having been selected by the early church for preservation and dissemination, but also through their textual history. In particular, the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share much material (often verbatim), albeit rearranged.

The Q Document is a hypothetical document reconstructed from the synoptic gospels, with some scholars adding corollary readings from non-canonical "sayings Gospels" such as the Gospel of Thomas. It is based on the observation that Matthew and Luke each incorporate almost the whole of Mark, but add other material. As much of this added material is identical--consisting largely of sayings attributed to Jesus--many scholars speculate that Matthew and Luke copied not only Mark but another source, no longer extant, called Q (an abbreviation for the German Quelle, meaning "wellspring" or "source"). If Q existed in a collected form, it could have been a written document or an oral tradition. Q has become an important topic in Jesus research, because the material thus identified might constitute an older and perhaps more reliable stratum.

Ancient non-Christian sources include scattered references to Jesus in the writings of Flavius Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Suetonius. Josephus was a Jewish historian who, in about AD 93, briefly described the careers of John the Baptist and Jesus. One passage, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum, is suspected to have suffered corruption by Christian editors. Around AD 100, Pliny the Younger wrote to the emperor Trajan for advice on what policy to adopt toward Christians in his jurisdiction, noting several basic details about the sect. The Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, writing in the early 2nd century, also mention Jesus briefly (if the latter's "Chrestus" in fact refers to the same man).

Noncanonical Christian writings date from the 2nd century on, although elements of them may be based on earlier sources which are now unknown. This includes some literature not recognized by the emerging Christian orthodoxy, such as the Gospel of Thomas (see above), as well as the writings of the church fathers (which were recognized, but not as canon).

The Talmuds, ancient compilations of Jewish law and tradition, include some 3rd-century recollections of 1st-century events. These may include scattered (and uncomplimentary) references to Jesus.

Jesus in the canonical Gospels

For more information, see: Canonical Gospels.

Christians normally encounter the story of Jesus as a conflation of the canonical gospels, which many churches read from the pulpit according to a regular cycle. (Indeed, the synoptics may have been composed around such a calendar.) Many of the events listed here are associated with Christian holidays, such as Christmas (for Jesus' birth) or Easter (for his resurrection).

Jesus' geneaology. The first sentence of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) calls Jesus "the son of David, the son of Abraham," thereby linking him to two key figures of the Old Testament. Abraham is the ancestor of the Jewish people. King David's reign marks a high point in the history of Israel, whose hoped-for revival was expressed through messianic expectations. Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-38) give somewhat different lists of ancestors.

The Nativity. Both Matthew and Luke place Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (but have him grow up in Nazareth), and affirm the virginal conception. Matthew (chapters 1 and 2) adds the Star of Bethlehem, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, and the Massacre of the Innocents. Luke (chapters 1 and 2) gives us the Annunciation, the Census of Quirinius, and the appearance of angels to shepherds in the field.

The Epiphany. All four gospels introduce the adult Jesus by way of John the Baptist, who baptizes him.

"And when Jesus had been baptized he at once came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And suddenly there was a voice from heaven, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him." (Matthew 3: 16-17; cf. Mark 1: 10 ff, Luke 3: 21 ff, John 1:32).

The Temptation. After Jesus' baptism, he fasts in the wilderness, where he is tempted (unsuccessfully) by the devil. (Matthew 4, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4).

Calling of Disciples Jesus summons his first disciples (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11) and later--with a full complement of twelve--sends them out to preach (Matthew 10; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 6:12-16, also 9:1-6). Many scholars believe the twelve disciples thus appointed to represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. (Jesus had many more followers than twelve.) The lists of names subtly differ from gospel to gospel.

Sermons. Matthew chapters 5 - 7 gives us the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus calls on his followers to turn the other cheek (5:39), "love your enemies" (5:44), and practice the Golden Rule (7:12). Other highlights include the Beatitudes (5:3-11) and the Lord's Prayer (6:9-13). Similar material is found in Luke, but scattered throughout the text rather than concentrated, as in Matthew.

Parables. A "parable" is a short narrative illustrating a spiritual point--often puzzling, or involving a surprising twist--and the classic examples are those of Jesus. The synoptics agree that Jesus told "parables" (the concept is introduced somewhat in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8) and give many examples. Here is just one:

"The kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through." (Matthew 13:33).

Miracle stories. All four gospels affirm that Jesus performed miracles. A traditional typology would distinguish between

  • healings (e.g. of the "man born blind" in John 9);
  • exorcisms (e.g., of the Gerasene demoniac in Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39);
  • "nature miracles" (e.g. walking on water in Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6: 45-52, and John 6:16-21); and
  • resurrections (e.g. of Lazarus in John 11).

The Transfiguration. The synoptics (Matthew 17:1-6, Mark 9:1-8, Luke 9:28-36) say that, when Jesus took his disciples Peter, John, and James the son of Zebadee to the top of a mountain, Jesus began to shine with light. His disciples also saw him converse with Moses and Elijah, and heard a voice from the clouds.

Apocalypse. The synoptics (Matthew 24, 25; Mark 13, Luke 12) describe Jesus as expecting a time of "sorrows" which will culminate in the Last Judgement. Many false Christs will appear, and the "abomination of desolation" will be set up in Jerusalem. Many scholars connect these passages with the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of its temple AD 70. Jesus refers to "the Son of Man" (possibly meaning himself); this is an allusion to the seventh chapter of Daniel, the classic text of Jewish apocalypticism.

Jesus' revelation as the Messiah. The synoptics (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21) have Jesus ask his disciples about their understanding of his role. When Peter calls him the Messiah, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone. Matthew has John the Baptist send messengers to ask Jesus whether he is the Messiah--he tells them to inform John that "the blind see again, and the lame walk" (Matthew 11:5). John has Jesus reveal himself as the Messiah in many situations, notably to a Samaritan woman whom he meets at a well (John 4).

Disputes with Pharisees and Sadducees. The synoptics (Matthew 16:1-12, 21:23 ff, 22, 23; Mark 8:11-21, 11:27-end, 12; Luke 11: 37-53) portray Jesus as angrily debating representatives of two of the major religious factions, the Pharisees and Sadducees (or "scribes"). A major theme is the degree of severity required by Jewish law--Jesus accuses his opponents of over-exactitude and hypocrisy. Their conflict will play a great role in Jesus' later execution. John (8:1-11) gives the story of the "woman caught in adultery," in which the Pharisees and Sadduccees ask Jesus for his legal opinion (the biblically-mandated sentence being death by stoning). His celebrated words: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. All four gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19:28 ff, John 12:12 ff) agree that Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem by crowds shouting messianic slogans--an event commemorated as Palm Sunday.

The Last Supper / Betrayal by Judas. All four gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 13 and 18) have Judas leave the company in order to betray Jesus to the temple authorities. The synoptics describe the Last Supper (a Passover seder), in which Jesus shares bread and wine with his disciples, saying the words that are repeated with every celebration of the eucharist: "This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you." (Luke 22:19-20, cf. I Corinthians 11:23 ff).

The Farewell Discourses. Instead of the Last Supper, John (chapters 13-17) describes a final intimate talk which is considered a highlight of Christian mystical expression. After washing the disciples' feet as an example of service and humility, Jesus gives them "a new commandment"--to "love one another, as I have loved you." (15:12, cf. 13:34). Later sections describe Jesus' relationship with "the Father", and promise the coming of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit).

Arrest According to the synoptics, Jesus spends the night before his death on the Mount of Olives (outside Jerusalem), in prayer (Matthew 26:36 ff, Mark 14:32 ff, Luke 22:39 ff). All four gospels describe Judas as leading temple police to Jesus, who he identifies by kissing him (Matthew 26:47 ff, Mark 14:43 ff, Luke 22:47 ff, John 18).

Trial The gospels describe three distinct trials, all during the same night. The first, before a council of Jewish religious authorities (the Sanhedrin), examines whether Jesus has claimed to be the Messiah and/or the "Son of God." The second, before Pilate, focuses on the issue of whether he claimed to be the "King of the Jews." To all such questions Jesus responds in the affirmative, though John (18:36) has him explain to Pilate that "my kingdom is not of this world." Luke adds a third trial before Herod Antipas, to whom Pilate has sent Jesus to be tried for jurisdictional reasons. (Herod sends him back.) In the end, Pilate--his hand apparently forced by the Jewish community--reluctantly finds Jesus guilty and sentences him to death.

The Passion. All four gospels agree that Jesus was executed by crucifixion, and recount various "Stations of the Cross" that represent successive stages of his agony. The words spoken by Jesus from the cross differ from gospel to gospel. The synoptics agree that Jesus' death was on a Friday which was also the Passover; John says that the day was actually the Day of Preparation (the day before).

Resurrection In all four gospels (Matthew 28, Mark 16 Luke 4, John 20), Mary Magdalene and other female followers of Jesus visit his tomb, and discover that he is in fact alive. (A shorter ending of Mark ends with the discovery of the empty tomb.) Jesus appears to the other disciples later and gives them the "Great Commission" (to take his message to the world). The Gospel of John adds touching farewells to disciples Thomas and Peter.

Ascension. Luke (24:50, cf. Mark 16:19) reports that the disciples watched Jesus ascend into heaven. The Book of Acts (1:19-11) adds that Jesus, in the words of an angel, "will come back in the same way as you have seen him go to heaven." This alludes to the Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ.

The historical Jesus

For more information, see: Historical Jesus.

Since the Enlightenment, scholars have tried to distinguish Jesus as a historical figure from the figure worshiped by Christianity, although Albert Schweitzer commented that scholars who set out on a "Quest for the Historical Jesus" tend to discover in him a reflection of their own views. Some naturalist scholars focused doubt on the biblical accounts of miracles. Others saw Jesus as a moral teacher whose views are best represented by the Sermon on the Mount. In recent decades, the name "Jesus Studies" has come to describe historical (as opposed to theological) approaches to the study of Jesus. In 1985, the Westar Institute started a project named the Jesus Seminar which inquired into the "voice of Jesus" - two hundred scholars discussed and voted on which stories and statements about Jesus they thought were historically valid. Many of the scholars involved with the Seminar have gone on to develop theories about Jesus, some of which are described below.

A central problem is that the most important sources about Jesus--the canonical gospels--are not accepted as reliable by all scholars due to a number of factors: (1) disagreement in regards to date of authorship, (2) the writers' neutrality is disputed because they were followers of Jesus, and (3) certain details in the gospels are believed to conflict with one another, with external history, or with secular understandings and presuppositions regarding the physical world. As a result, historians must decide whether to

(a) select which information they regard as most probable;
(b) attempt to harmonize seeming discrepancies; or
(c) doubt everything.

Following this last principle, a few scholars (G. A. Wells, Earl Doherty, John Allegro and Robert M. Price) go so far as to doubt the existence of Jesus as a historical figure, often citing the idea of the Mythic Hero and pointing to similarities with the myths of earlier religious saviors[2]. This view has not received widespread support for several reasons, including attestation to Jesus' existence in disparate sources, and the inclusion in the gospel accounts of events potentially embarrassing to early Christians that were unlikely to have been invented. Examples of such embarrassing events include Jesus' execution as a criminal (a detail not found in traditional Jewish messianic lore), and his baptism by John the Baptist (suggesting that Jesus had sins to be forgiven, and an inferior role to John).

Recent scholarly interpretations of Jesus that do not necessarily agree with historical Christian beliefs variously portray him as:

Many other theories have been proposed, but have received less scholarly support.

Jesus in Christianity

For more information, see: Jesus in Christianity.

Christianity encompasses groups and individuals whose Christologies (views on Jesus) are extremely diverse. Nevertheless, certain "mainstream" beliefs can be identified, which would win broad support among the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches (i.e. the overwhelming majority of Christians). These beliefs may be traced partly to the New Testament, and partly to church tradition. Especially influential were the ecumenical councils which established creeds such as the Nicene (or Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed.

Christians generally affirm that Jesus was the Messiah whose coming was predicted by the prophets of the Old Testament; and would approve of Peter's words (in Matthew 16:16), "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Perhaps confusingly, Christian tradition hails Jesus not only as the Son of God, but also in some sense as God himself, incarnated as a man. The theology that arose to describe this uses the language of the Incarnation (Jesus being fully human, yet fully divine), and of the Trinity (Jesus being its Second Person, the Son or Logos, who is "eternally begotten of the Father").

The Jesus of Christianity is at once historical and trans-historical. The Nicene Creed expresses the belief that he existed before the creation of the world, and will reign eternally after its end (the subject of eschatology). Moreover, many affirm his dwelling within the hearts of all Christian believers, perhaps all souls, who receive spiritual life from him as grapes do from the vine (John 15:1 ff). The "body of Christ" is identified with the community of believers--the church--as well as with the communion bread. For some churches such as Orthodox and Catholics, Christ is actually present in the Eucharist (Transubstantiation), whereby he unites with his worshipers.

Of the various miracles that the gospels attribute to Jesus, or describe as occurring in his proximity, most amount to signs of his divinity. However, two carry special doctrinal significance: Mary's virginal conception of Jesus (not to be confused with the immaculate conception, or the virgin birth), and Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The first is associated with the Incarnation; the second, with Christ's role as Savior.

For Christians, Jesus' crucifixion was the defining moment in the history of the world, a kind of "axis mundi". It is remembered not as a tragedy, but as a triumph--and not simply because Jesus escaped as a result of his resurrection and subsequent ascension. Various Christian theologies attempt to explain how Christ's sacrifice has brought salvation into the world; this is the field of soteriology.

  • Several theories emphasize the legal helplessness of sinful humanity before God as unwavering judge (the "appeasement" or "commercial" theory), or Satan as debtor (the "ransom" theory), with sinless Christ as the only acceptable payment.
  • The Christus Victor theory conceives of Christ's life and death as revelations of God's love, whereby Christ descended to earth for us and (in the words of the liturgy of Saint Basil) "conquered death by death, and became the firstborn of the dead."
  • Another (Pauline) image is that of Christ as the "last Adam," whose sinless perfection atones (justifying man and making him righteous in the sight of God) for Adam's sin: "For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ" (I Corinthians 15:22, cf. Romans 5:12 ff.) Orthodox and Catholic tradition similarly juxtaposes Eve with the Virgin Mary (though the station of Mary is by no means comparable to that of Christ).

Jesus in Islam

For more information, see: Jesus in Islam.

The Qur'an repeatedly names Jesus (Arabic Isa) as one of the prophets of Islam. (The terms nabi and rasul are both used.) A hadith (tradition) of Burkhari (4.55.651) adds that he was the last prophet to appear before Muhammad.

Christian beliefs affirmed by the Qur'an include

  • the virginal conception by Mary (3:47, 21:91)
  • Jesus' miracles, such as healing the blind or leprous, or bringing a clay bird to life (3:49, cf. the Protevangelion Jacobi for this last)
  • his mixed reception, with some disbelieving (2:253)
  • his status as the Messiah (as-Masih), who "confirmed the Torah that had come before him" (61:6), and predicted the future appearance of "Ahmad" (i.e. Muhammad, 61:6)
  • the title "Word of God" (Kamilat Allah, 3:45)
  • his Second Coming--"there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them..." (4:159). In that connection, a number of hadith describe a final contest between Jesus (perhaps accompanied by the Mahdi) and Dajjal, the Antichrist.

Christian beliefs rejected by the Qur'an include:

  • the Incarnation: "They do blaspheme who say "Allah is Christ the son of Mary..." (5:72). "Christ the son of Mary was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him." (5:75)
  • the Trinity: "They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah." (5:73) However, 5:116 suggests that the "Trinity" being condemned here is one consisting of God, Jesus and Mary.
  • The crucifixion: "...they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise... (4:157-158) Interestingly, the proposal that another person was crucified in Jesus' stead is anticipated in a text from Nag Hammadi, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (56: 6-19).

Muslims believe that Jesus revealed a holy book called the Injil ("Evangel"), but do not identify this with any part of the New Testament as it exists today.

In addition to the Qur'an, a number of hadiths and other traditional sayings quote Jesus. For example he is made to observe that "The world is a bridge, so pass over it and do not inhabit it" (from a Fatehpur Sikri inscription commissioned by Akbar). This raises the fascinating question of how early Muslims were exposed to traditions about Jesus, and whether these might have included authentic strands no longer extant anywhere else.

(Qur'an translations by Yusuf Ali)

Jesus in Western culture

Because of the historic impact of Christianity on the western world the figure of Jesus appears prominently in western cultures. He is a perennial subject of art and discussion both in and out of the church. Much of his influence is particularly tied to the religion of Christianity that claims Jesus as its central figure and the influence various church and para-church organizations wield within society. The impact of the Biblical Jesus of western life and culture is no better illustrated than by the use of the Gregorian Calendar. Additionally, the widespread celebration surrounding the holidays of Easter and Christmas are further testimonies to the effects of Jesus on western culture.

Although religion, Christianity in particular, is seen to be receding in many western socieities the impact of the man Jesus and the religion that claims him as its key figure are easily seen and attested to throughout the western world.

Jewish views of Jesus

For more information, see: Jewish views of Jesus.

Humanist views of Jesus

Many humanists and non-theists have an admiration for Jesus as a moral example and sometimes as a spiritual teacher, although there are obviously different meanings in the word. Most humanists believe that Jesus probably did exist, although some follow mythicist scholars in thinking that the stories of Jesus are myths. Some humanists tend to admire the direction of Jesus' anti-authoritarian, anti-absolutist morality, and the challenge they present to the ethics of the Old Testament[3].

Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers that many consider to have been a deist, created a "Jefferson Bible" for the Indians entitled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" that included only Jesus' ethical teachings. Similarly, Thomas Paine wrote of the Bible in his controversial book The Age of Reason.

Mandaean views of Jesus

Mandaeanism regards Jesus as a deceiving prophet (mšiha kdaba) of the false Jewish god Adunay, and an opponent of the good prophet John the Baptist, although they do believe that John baptized Jesus.

New Age views of Jesus

For more information, see: Neoapocrypha.

The New Age movement entertains a wide variety of views on Jesus, with some representatives (such as A Course in Miracles) going so far as to trance-channel him. Many recognize him as a "great teacher" (or "Ascended Master") similar to Buddha, and teach that Christhood is something that all may attain. At the same time, many New Age teachings, such as reincarnation, appear to reflect a discomfort with traditional Christianity. Many New Age subgroups claim Jesus as a supporter, often incorporating contrasts with or protests against the Christian mainstream. Thus, for example, Theosophy and its offshoots have Jesus studying esotericism in the Himalayas or Egypt during his "lost years."


  1. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. New York: Doubleday, 1991 vol. 1:205-7
  2. As an example of this genre, Robert M. Price's essay Christ a Fiction (1997) Internet Infidels library.
  3. British Humanist Association, A humanist discussion of... Jesus (2006)