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Jesus   circa 4 BC – 30 AD

To some he is Jesus Christ – the word "christ" meaning king in the Greek language used in the New Testament. The Testament (or Gospels) describe Jesus as a Jew whose childhood home was in Nazareth, a town of roughly 1,600 and 2,000 people in Judea. To modern historians he is Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was born into tumultuous times politically. In 4 BC in Judea, the death of King Herod the Great raised the hope of independence from Roman influence, and people created disturbances. But Rome was able to restore order. Augustus divided Herod's domains among three of Herod's sons. And in the year 6 AD, when Jesus was around ten, Judea became a province of the Roman Empire.

In Judea, numerous preachers roamed through public places preaching their view of what Judaism should be, and one them was John the Baptist. He saw perversity and spoke of the coming of an Armageddon that would bring the Jews a new order under the god Jehovah. Jesua has been described as one of his followers, around 30 AD, and he has been described as beginning his own ministry when Herod Antipas had John the Baptist imprisoned.

Soon Jesus heard the news that John the Baptist (while imprisoned) had been executed. According to the New Testament this news angered Jesus. The annual pilgrimage to Judaism's holy city, Jerusalem was beginning, and the focus of the pilgrimage was Jerusalem's temple, the "House of the Lord." Jesus and his followers joined perhaps as many as a hundred thousand pilgrims who poured into Jerusalem from nearby and from outside Judea – doubling the number of people in the city. Jesus may or may not have gone to Jerusalem with confrontation on his mind, but in Jerusalem he created a disturbance. At the temple were merchants who sold the animals and birds accepted by Jews as suitable for temple sacrifices, and among the merchants were money changers who made it possible for people from the different areas to acquire the necessary coins to buy these creatures. Jesus, according to the Matthew 21:13, accused the merchants and money changers as having turned the temple from a "House of Prayer" into a "robber's den," and he is said to have made a whip out of cords he had gathered, and the story goes that he drove the merchants and money changers from the temple grounds.

The gathering crowds in Jerusalem always heightened the spirit of nationalism there. On such occasions, joy and an increase in tension was in the air, and those who made street corner speeches found audiences for their passionate denunciations, including denunciations of Jerusalem's priestly city fathers, the Sadducees. The rebellious outbursts upset the Sadducees, and they must have been offended by the disturbance that Jesus had created.

After his revolt at the temple, Jesus sensed that he was in danger, but rather than go into hiding he let himself be arrested. His followers are described as less brazen: they deserted Jesus, including one called Peter who denied to authorities that he knew Jesus.

Jesus was taken before a political council called the Sanhedrin, presided over by Jerusalem's High Priest, Caiaphas. The punishment for fomenting rebellion or for committing blasphemy could be death. Executions for these offenses were routine in Judea. Each of the four Gospels describes the Sanhedrin as having accused Jesus of claiming to be the "king of the Jews," and John 4:26 describes Jesus as claiming that he was the Messiah. This would have been grounds for the charge of blasphemy. The usual method of execution for blasphemy was stoning, and the usual method of execution for treason or insurrection was crucifixion. According to the Gospels, crucifixion was chosen for Jesus, which fits with Jesus not having claimed to be a god or the Messiah. (In centuries to come, crucifixion would also be better than stoning for artistic depictions of martyrdom.)

According to the Gospels, a crowd mocked Jesus while he was on the cross, and a priest joked that Jesus had claimed to save others but apparently could not save himself. Among the followers of Jesus who were present no one dared expose himself as such. And, according to Matthew 27:46, Jesus did not yet understand the reason for his death, for, while dying in the dark, Jesus asked aloud "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

Rather than Jesus being considered just another dissident troublemaker, his followers gave special significance to his death. The Gospels, written maybe three, four, five or more after the death of Jesus, describe the body of Jesus as having disappeared from its tomb, and it describes Jesus as having descended from heaven and appearing before a select few of his followers on a mountain in Galilee. Also, the Gospels attached a special significance to the death of Jesus. The meaning of his death was described as similar to the sacrificial ritual that had been common among Jews. This was a ritual sacrifice of selected individuals whose deaths were supposed to appease the god Jehovah regarding the sins of the larger community. Jesus, in other words, had died for the sins of others – an explanation that was to catch on and have credibility among a multitude of people accustomed to viewing matters in the realm of the supernatural.

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.