Historical Jesus: Birth, Ministry, and Death of Jesus of Nazareth


Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

Author |  Historian

Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: July 1st, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

In a religious documentary, a Canadian theologian, Charles Templeton, noted: “No one in history has touched the hearts of men and women the way Jesus did. He had the highest moral standard and the greatest compassion of any person I've ever heard of.” 

I wouldn't go as far as he did. However, as a historian, I can say with certainty that Jesus of Nazareth is among the most influential figures in the history of the Western world.   

But which Jesus? As is the case, there are fundamentally two distinctive Jesus figures: the Jesus in tradition and faith (the so-called "Christ of faith") and the "historical Jesus" — the man behind the layers of tradition and myth that historians have been trying to uncover for more than 200 years.

In the realm of religious tradition, Jesus is a figure of divine prophecy, miraculous birth, awe-inspiring miracles, profound teachings, and a triumphant resurrection. This Jesus, enshrined in the beliefs of billions, is central to Christian religion and worship.

In contrast, the quest for the historical Jesus seeks to peel back these layers of tradition and myth to reveal the human figure who walked the earth two millennia ago. This pursuit began in earnest in the 18th century and has evolved significantly due to different criteria and interpretative models. 

Our aim isn’t to favor one over the other but to emphasize two different approaches to Jesus.

 In this article, we’ll, therefore, explore both facets of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ll begin with a summary of the traditional accounts, encompassing the prophecies, virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. 

Following this, we’ll delve into the origins of the quest to learn about the historical Jesus and the modern approaches historians use to study this enigmatic figure. Finally, we’ll examine what can be confidently stated about the life of the historical Jesus.

However, before we begin, you should consider enrolling in Bart D. Ehrman’s captivating courseJesus the Secret Messiah - Revealing the Mysteries of the Gospel of Mark.” In it, Dr. Ehrman provides a scholarly yet accessible look at our earliest Gospel, thus revealing interesting points about the origins of Christianity and Jesus’ life. 

Historical Jesus

The Christ of Faith: Jesus From the Religious Perspective

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is perceived as a divine being who pre-existed before his incarnation. The Gospel of John opens with a profound statement about Jesus' divine nature: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This "Word”, or “Logos,” is understood to be Jesus, who existed with God from the very beginning of time.

In his Commentary on John, Craig S. Keener notes: “John’s choice of the Logos to articulate his Christology (the field of study concerned with the nature and role of Christ) was brilliant: no concept better articulated an entity that was both divine yet distinct from the Father... Jesus was thus the supreme revelation of God; the Torah had gone forth from Zion.”

In other words, this concept establishes Jesus as not merely a historical figure but as an eternal and divine presence within the Christian religion. Jesus allegedly said in John’s Gospel: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

Furthermore, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus' entry into the world was marked by a miraculous event known as the virgin birth. Mary, a young woman betrothed to Joseph, was visited by the angel Gabriel, who announced she would conceive a child through the Holy Spirit.

This account is foundational to the Christian understanding of Jesus' dual nature as both fully divine and fully human, which sets the stage for his redemptive mission. 

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI presents the theological perspective on Jesus’ birth: “From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends.”

Jesus' ministry, as depicted in the Gospels, revolved around his role as the Messiah and a divine being whose purpose was to bring salvation to humanity. Throughout it, Jesus performed numerous miracles, such as healing the sick, casting out demons, and even raising the dead.

These miracles served as signs of his divine authority and compassion for humanity. In addition to his miraculous works, Jesus' teachings were profound and transformative. He spoke in parables, conveying deep spiritual truths about the Kingdom of God, love, forgiveness, and justice. 

Did You Know?

Being one of the most influential figures in the history of the Western world, Jesus has sometimes been used to justify devious ideologies and ideas. During the Third Reich, for instance, German Protestant theologians redefined Jesus as an Aryan, thus aligning Christianity with Nazi racial ideologies.

This disturbing transformation was spearheaded by the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life, established in 1939. The Institute, under the direction of theologian Walter Grundmann, published altered versions of the New Testament and catechisms, proclaiming Jesus as the savior of the Aryans and stripping away his Jewish heritage. To learn more about it, be sure to check out Susannah Herschel’s excellent study “The Aryan Jesus”.  

Moreover, Jesus' sacrificial death and resurrection are central to the Christian religion. Christians believe that Jesus' crucifixion was not merely a tragic end to his life, but a pivotal moment in God's plan for the redemption of humanity

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: 'There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer'."

This statement underscores the religious emphasis on the universal scope of Jesus' redemptive act, thus emphasizing that his suffering and death were for the salvation of all people. 

Writing at the end of the 2nd century, the bishop Irenaeus asserts: "For he came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men."

However, the story of Jesus didn’t stop there. According to tradition, God conquered death by raising Jesus. His resurrection is celebrated as the cornerstone of the Christian religion. 

According to all four Gospels, three days after his crucifixion, Jesus rose from the dead, appearing to his disciples and many others. This event is seen as the ultimate validation of his divine nature and the fulfillment of his mission.

In an interview, Anglican bishop N.T. Wright explains the implication of Jesus’ resurrection: “God’s new creation has begun. Somehow, God seems to have dealt with the fact of death itself in the person of Jesus.” 

The resurrection not only signifies Jesus' victory over death but also offers the promise of eternal life to all who believe in him. It’s this hope of resurrection and eternal life that has sustained and spread the Christian religion for centuries.

In light of the belief in his resurrection, Christians revisited the Old Testament prophecies and concluded that Jesus precisely fulfilled them — a stream of thought that persisted well into the 2nd and 3rd centuries and continues to this day. However, by the end of the 1st century, Christians had already come to that realization.

The Epistle to Barnabas (c. 90-120 C.E.) notes:

For to this end, the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it is written concerning Him, partly concerning Israel, and partly to us; and [the Scripture] says thus: 'He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb which is dumb before its shearer'” (5.1-2).

Here, the author clearly evokes passages from Isaiah 53, interpreting them as direct prophecies about Jesus' suffering and redemptive death.

Furthermore, writing in the middle of the 2nd century, Justin Martyr asserted: 

In these books, then, of the prophets we found Jesus our Christ foretold as coming, born of a virgin, growing up to man’s estate, and healing every disease and every sickness, and raising the dead, and being hated, and unrecognized, and crucified, and dying, and rising again, and ascending into heaven, and being, and being called, the Son of God. We find it also predicted that certain persons should be sent by Him into every nation to publish these things and that rather among the Gentiles than among the Jews men should believe in Him” (1 Apology, 31).

These examples (and there are many others!) reflect the early Christian belief that Jesus' life and works were the fulfillment of numerous prophetic declarations found in the Old Testament, thus encompassing his miraculous birth, his ministry of healing, his death, and resurrection.

Today, virtually all Christian denominations hold that the Old Testament prophets predicted Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection. 

For Christians, Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah that Jewish prophets spoke of centuries before his appearance. The Congregational Presbyterian Church, for instance, has published a short article emphasizing several key prophecies (e.g., Isaiah 53:7-9) that, in their opinion, foretell Jesus' life.

These interpretations underscore the continuity between Jewish scripture and the Christian narrative, reinforcing the belief that Jesus' advent was divinely orchestrated and anticipated.

Below you can find a table with the chronology of key events in Jesus’ life according to the religious tradition.

Event

Key Verse (NIV translation)

Pre-existing Jesus as the Logos

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

Virgin Birth

“The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’" (Lk 1:35).

Beginning of Ministry

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news’” (Mk 1:14-15).

Miracles and Teachings

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Mt 9:35).

Last Supper

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Lk 22:19-20).

Crucifixion

“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).

Resurrection

“He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay” (Mt 28:6).

In summary, Christian tradition presents Jesus as a pre-existent divine being who entered human history through a virgin birth, led a life characterized by miracles and profound teachings, and finally fulfilled his redemptive mission through his death and resurrection.

But that isn't the only picture of Jesus known to us. Beyond the realm of faith, scholars have embarked on a quest to uncover the historical Jesus — a journey to distinguish man from the myth.

I was captivated by this journey in my early twenties, and it still interests me deeply. As we delve into this endeavor, we’ll explore how historians approach the figure of Jesus, attempting to understand his life and legacy through the lenses of historical evidence and critical analysis.

The Historical Jesus: An Introduction

The first book I read on the historical Jesus was E. P. Sanders' excellent summary, The Historical Figure of Jesus. Since then, I have been fascinated by this critical endeavor to uncover who Jesus really was. 

The quest for the historical Jesus marks a departure from traditional Christian discourse, which, for the most part, equated the Gospels with history, and history with the truth. 

The European deists, who rejected that equation in the 18th century, set things in motion. Their disbelief in miracles and emphasis on reason required a different approach to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity.

In her book The Historical Jesus, Helen Bond notes that "the modern academic study of the historical Jesus only began in the wake of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with its appeal to rationalism as the basis of scientific inquiry and its rejection of a God who intervenes in history in supernatural ways. The emergence of historical criticism in the nineteenth century allowed distinctions to be made between the ‘Christ of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history,’ distinctions that have underpinned the Quest ever since.”

This new approach sought to understand Jesus as a historical figure, separate from the theological constructs that had grown based on the religious belief in his resurrection. Scholars realized that the only access to the historical Jesus we have is through texts (e.g. Gospels) deeply shaped by the post-resurrection reflections of Jesus’ followers. 

One of the earliest figures in this quest was Hermann S. Reimarus, an 18th-century German scholar. He believed Jesus was a Jewish (political) revolutionary whose message was later distorted by his followers to create a new religion.

Although most historians today reject Reimarus’ conclusions, he laid the groundwork for future scholars to explore the historical Jesus without the constraints of doctrinal orthodoxy. 

Contemporary historians continue to build on these foundations. They use a variety of critical methods and interdisciplinary approaches (sociology, anthropology, archeology, etc.) to piece together a more nuanced and historically grounded portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. 

So, what have contemporary scholars discovered about Jesus' life? While we may not have time-traveling DeLoreans to take us back to first-century Judea, modern historical research offers fascinating insights into where and how Jesus lived, what he taught, and how he met his end. Let’s take a look! 

The Historical Jesus: What Can We Know About His Life?

Before we delve into the nuances of the historical Jesus, we must set methodological foundations. Contemporary historians primarily work with ancient sources to piece together the life of Jesus of Nazareth. So, which ones do we have? The main sources are the New Testament Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As valuable as these texts are, they are far from perfect.

The table below highlights the key events and dates crucial for understanding the sources historians use to study the historical Jesus. These dates show the timeline from Jesus' death to the writing of the Gospels, thus reflecting the gap between the events and their documentation.

Event

Approximate Date

Jesus’ death

C. 33 C.E.

Oral traditions about Jesus’ life

C. 33-70 C.E.

Paul’s epistles (providing little information about Jesus’ life)

C. 48-62 C.E.

Mark’s Gospel (the first written biography of Jesus)

C. 70 C.E.

Matthew’s Gospel

C. 85 C.E.

Luke’s Gospel

C. 85 C.E.

John’s Gospel

C. 90-100 C.E.

First, the Gospels were written 40-60 years after Jesus' death, representing a significant gap that leaves room for the development of oral traditions and theological interpretations. Furthermore, these texts were not penned by eyewitnesses of Jesus' life. 

Later, Church tradition ascribed them to Mark (a companion of Peter), Matthew (the apostle), Luke (a companion of Paul), and John (the apostle). However, most scholars reject these attributions — and on good grounds, if I may add! Check out our articles to find out more about it (here, here, here, and here). 

Moreover, the Gospels aren’t biographies in the modern sense. They are theological documents written with the primary aim of convincing others that Jesus is the resurrected Lord who brings salvation to mankind. This theological motivation influences how events are portrayed and what is included or omitted. 

Consequently, the Gospels (check out our article about them) are filled with discrepancies, historical improbabilities, and clear-cut mistakes, such as geographical and cultural errors. These issues complicate the task of historians who strive to extract facts from texts that blend history with faith and tradition. To navigate these challenges, they employ a variety of critical methods.

Using them, scholars aim to sift through the layers of tradition and theology to uncover the most plausible historical core of Jesus' life and ministry. 

While absolute certainty remains elusive, virtually all historians agree that Jesus existed. To know more about the evidence for Jesus’ existence, take a look at our earlier article!

Additionally, what follows is only a glimpse into the historical analysis of Jesus. If you want to know more about it, I recommend another article we published several months ago that delves into the key events in Jesus’ life from the historical perspective. 

The Historical Jesus: Birth

While tradition holds that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, most contemporary scholars disagree and point to Nazareth as his likely birthplace. The birth narratives are found only in Matthew and Luke, but these accounts are filled with discrepancies, such as differing hometowns for Joseph and Mary, and historical improbabilities, such as Luke's census.

Notably, Paul never mentions Jesus' birthplace, and Mark simply links him with Nazareth (Mk 1:9), as does John (Jn 1:46). The latter’s silence is particularly surprising given Nathanael's (Jesus’ disciple introduced in John 1:45-51, known for his initial doubt) skeptical remark, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If John knew of a tradition indicating Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, he surely would have mentioned it.

Moreover, there are clear theological motives for placing Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. According to Old Testament prophecy, the future Messiah would be born in the city of King David. This connection provided a compelling narrative for early Christians seeking to establish Jesus' messianic credentials. 

Helen Bond rightly concludes: “The probability is that Jesus was the son of Joseph and was born in Nazareth, the small Galilean village where he grew up. Such a conclusion is generally held by most historical Jesus critics.”

For those interested in a deeper dive into the historical analysis of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, our earlier article provides a thorough examination of this topic. This scholarly exploration further reinforces the likelihood that Nazareth, not Bethlehem, was the actual birthplace of Jesus.

historical jesus studies

The Historical Jesus: Ministry and Teachings

Since the works of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, most scholars accept that the historical context of Jesus involves a particularly influential ideology known as Jewish apocalypticism.

In other words, Jesus was an apocalypticist, expecting the imminent end of history through a decisive intervention of God, who would establish a new Kingdom on Earth. The reasons for holding this view are compelling and can be further studied through Bart D. Ehrman's excellent bestseller Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

As a preacher of repentance, the historical Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was near. His first words in Mark’s Gospel are a fair summary of his teaching: “The time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). Jesus, thus, envisioned a real Kingdom coming to earth. 

God would establish this Kingdom, and Jesus may have seen himself as the one who would, in God's name, rule over it with the help of his inner circle of 12 disciples. 

His ministry, primarily conducted in Galilee and Judea, spanned approximately three years, during which he gathered a significant following and performed numerous acts that the Gospels describe as miracles.

Many people today, as illustrated by Templeton's quote in the introduction, consider Jesus to be one of the greatest ethical teachers of all time. However, historians rightly point out that his ethical teachings were, first and foremost, the ethics of the coming Kingdom. They reflected what life would be like in the Kingdom and qualified a person to enter it once it arrived.

So, Jesus' ethical teachings were closely aligned with both his Jewish ethnicity and his apocalyptic ministry. For him, what God wanted was for his people to keep the commandments that formed the heart of the Mosaic law: the commandments to love God above all else (Deut 6:4) and to love one's neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:18; Mk 12:28-34).

Furthermore, the historical Jesus likely emphasized the need to give up all possessions and everything that binds a person to this world, in light of the coming Kingdom (Mk 10:17-21).

His radical message of self-sacrifice and unwavering commitment to God’s commandments underscored his vision of an imminent divine intervention that would transform the world. However, not all were pleased to hear it.

The Historical Jesus: Death and Resurrection

Understanding the historical Jesus as an apocalypticist explains why he was perceived as such a threat that he had to be arrested and executed. Jesus spent his final week in Jerusalem, preaching to the crowds who had come to worship at the Temple. 

His teachings and actions offended powerful religious leaders, leading to his arrest and subsequent handover to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate, tasked with maintaining order during the volatile Passover Feast, saw Jesus as a potential disruptor. 

With reports of a preacher proclaiming the arrival of a new Kingdom and gaining followers, Pilate felt compelled to intervene. He ordered Jesus to be crucified, a common and brutal form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. 

For those interested in a deeper exploration of Jesus' crucifixion, be sure to check out our article that delves into this terrifying Roman practice from both historical and sociological perspectives.

The aftermath of Jesus' death, however, took an unexpected turn that neither the Jewish leaders nor Pilate could have foreseen. Shortly after Jesus' crucifixion, some of his earliest followers, including Peter and the new convert Paul, had profound religious experiences.

They convinced them that God had raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to heaven.

This is where historical investigation reaches its limit. As explained in an earlier article, the resurrection of Jesus can’t be proven from a strictly historical standpoint. It’s a miracle claim that surpasses the boundaries of historical analysis.

The Christ of Faith vs. The Historical Jesus: An Illustration

Before the conclusion, I’ve decided to compare the religious and historical perspectives on Jesus. The table depicted below emphasizes several key points. 

Aspect

Christ of Faith

Historical Jesus

Existence

A pre-existent divine being incarnated as the son of Mary

Historical figure. A Jewish preacher

Birthplace

Bethlehem (virgin birth)

Nazareth (the son of Mary and Joseph)

Nature

Fully divine and fully human

A human with an envisioned prophetic role in the future Kingdom.

Ministry Focus

Kingdom of God, salvation for humanity, and miracles

Apocalypticism –— an imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God

Teachings

Eternal truths, parables about the Kingdom of God

Ethical teachings related to its historical context and the overall apocalyptic message

Death and Resurrection

Crucifixion as redemption for the sins of humanity; resurrection as a final proof of his divinity

Crucifixion by Romans because of his apocalyptic message that Romans misunderstood. Resurrection — beyond the scope of history.

Conclusion

In examining the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we find two distinct yet intertwined narratives: the Christ of Faith and the Historical Jesus. The Christ of Faith is celebrated within the Christian tradition as a pre-existent divine being who entered human history through a miraculous virgin birth. He performed numerous miracles and fulfilled a redemptive mission through his crucifixion and resurrection.

Conversely, the quest for the Historical Jesus seeks to uncover the human figure behind the layers of tradition and theological interpretation. 

Utilizing critical methodologies and historical analysis, scholars have pieced together a portrait of Jesus as an apocalyptic Jewish preacher from Nazareth, whose teachings focused on the imminent arrival of God's Kingdom.

Finally, both approaches — faith-based and historical — offer valuable insights into understanding one of history's most influential figures.

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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