The world at the time Jesus was born was, of course, very different from what it is now. People did not know much and they still blamed the devil for things that they did not understand: epileptics were possessed by the demons, and the only way to cure deafness or palsy was also to drive the demons out. They thought that he world was of finite duration and that it would come to an end, probably within their lifetime. Science and History, as we understand them, did not exist.
We can assume that the writers of the New Testament saw the things they wrote about. There is no need to assume that it was written decades later by people who never knew Jesus. However, if a modern man had been present, he would have seen something else, as his knowledge and perception are different compared with the limited and, for us, naive state of the people of the first century AD. It is very strange that the figure of Jesus is still the same for us as it was then, even if Christianity appears to be on the decline, at least in the western world.
It is impossible to know if the words attributed to Him in the Gospels are his own, or those of the writer. It is a fact that the writers of the Gospels, knowing that Jesus has left no book, try to impose their own point of view. All the same, the sayings and stories attributed to Jesus are remarkable and powerful when taken one by one, or as a whole. The same can be said of Jesus’ life-story. Even if what is said did not always happen, the content of the message is important. (18)
To the Orthodox Christian believers the boy Jesus, from his younger age, was invested with all the knowledge and the power that his mission on earth required. He was a divinity and this belief lasted for 1800 years. Up to a point this belief is understandable as the whole life of Jesus, from his miraculous birth to his death on the Cross, is a continuous legend. Jesus’ story invades history, even if this does not mean that it is “historical” in the sense that it can not be proved by modern historical analysis. Luke’s Gospel, for instance, tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod from his Virgin mother, Mary. The Holy family had to travel from their home town of Nazareth (Galilee) to Bethlehem (Judaea) as this was the city of Joseph’s ancestors, that included King David, to take part in a Roman census organised by Caesar Augustus when Quirinus was Governor of Syria. However Quirinus was not Governor of Syria during Herod’s reign (37-4 BC). On the other hand the fourth Gospel states that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem and that he was not of David’s line! As the old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the possibility that he was born in Galilee would tend to put some doubts on Jesus’ credentials. These contradictions are not uncommon and we cannot say that the fourth Gospel is more accurate that the others. Luke’s Gospel looks like history at first sight, but a deeper analyse shows that it is more a collection of legends and traditions.
The assertion that Jesus was born of a virgin mother was unknown to the early Christians. No mention of it is to be found in Mark’s Gospel, or in St. Paul’s Epistles. All the New Testament Gospels agree that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. It is then probable that he was born there rather that in Bethlehem during a non-existent census at this period of time. If he was born during Herod’s reign then this must have been before 4 BC when Herod died. The Pagan philosopher Celsus wrote in about 178 AD that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and a Roman legionary. There is an old tradition in the Talmud that Yeshu, or Jesus, was the son of a Roman legionary called Panthera, Pantera or Pandera. The name Jesus was common at that time and we are not certain that the Talmud was mentioning the Jesus of the New Testament.
The Book of James (assumed to be Jesus’ brother) says that Mary was one of seven Temple Virgins kept by the High Priest in Jerusalem. Moreover James states, as does Matthew’s Gospel, that it is Mary who was from David’s line, and not Joseph. She was already six months pregnant when Joseph met her and he was held responsible of this fact by the High Priest. James adds that Joseph had been married before, that he was going to Bethlehem to register his first children in the census, and that he did not know what to do about Mary’s child. The fact that Jesus was born in a cave, or a stable, was due to the fact that Joseph was ashamed to take his pregnant fiancee to a normal inn. However he found a midwife, and Jesus was born there.
Jesus’ birth is only mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew found that the nativity of Jesus was foreseen in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, as well as by the prophet Micah, even if this last prophecy is not very clear. According to Luke some shepherds were first told of Jesus’ birth by some Angels. The New Testament does not say where Jesus was born and, more specifically, never mentions that it was in a stable.
Luke then tells us that, like all Jewish boys, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day. Mary and her family went to Jerusalem where they met Simeon who told them that Jesus was the Messiah Israel was waiting. Afterwards they went back to Nazareth where Jesus grew up.
Matthew gives us more detail about Jesus’ birth as, for instance, Herod’ jealousy when he heard that a rival King was born in Bethlehem. As a result he ordered all male children under two years of age to be slain. To escape the massacre Joseph took his family to Egypt, as foreseen in the old prophecy from Hosea. However we have no proof that Jesus ever went to Egypt.
In Thomas’ Gospel, written in the fourth century but based on a second century Greek Gospel, Jesus was two years old when he escaped to Egypt with his family. Thomas agrees with Matthew that the Holy Family was informed of Herod’s death by an Angel. They could then go home safely, first to Capernaum, then to Nazareth, where Jesus, as a grown-up, started preaching.
The Gospels tell us very little or nothing of Jesus’ childhood. The apocryphal writings are more explicit and tell us that his education was not without problem, as he knew of his divinity. He revealed his power by first making people mad, deaf or blind before making them well again. He is also assumed to have stricken people dead only to bring them back to life again. His teacher, Zacheus, thought that he was either a sorcerer, a God or an angel. He was not behaving as a perfect obedient child, even with his parents. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that he went to Jerusalem with his parents for Passover when he was twelve. After the feast his parents set off home, and he stayed behind without informing them. They had assumed that he was somewhere with their party but, when they realised that he was missing, they had to go back to Jerusalem. They found him in the Temple and, as any parent would, they remonstrated with him. He answered “Did not you know that I must be in my Father’s house”. They already knew, of course, that he was a special child. However, even in the Gospels, he always appears to be very rude to his mother and to his family; at some point they believed that he was mad.
Even if the Gospels do not say anything on this subject, it seems that Joseph had been already married before he met Mary. This would explain why Mark’s Gospel could speak of Jesus’ large family. According to this book Jesus had four brothers (James, Joset, Simon and Jude) as well as some sisters. This assumption could explain the Roman-Catholics beliefs that Mary remained always a virgin. Tradition tells us that James was the leader of the first Christians in Jerusalem. However we do not know anything for certain about Jesus’ home life with his brothers and sisters. Only the legends and traditions, as well as some medieval writings, tell us more details, like the possibility that Jesus visited Britain as a boy with Joseph of Arimathea.
Very little written evidence about Jesus survives, even in the non-Christian sources. This has led many historians to think that such a person as Jesus never existed. Tacitus in his Annals, Pliny the Younger and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made some slight remarks about Him, but not enough to prove anything. They described Him more as a wise man that as a God. All the other evidences that reached us have been filtered by the Christian Church. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire during Constantine rule (he died in 337 AD), all the evidences that contradicted the Orthodox views of Jesus were destroyed or modified. Everybody must decide for himself if Jesus has been invented by some myth-makers or, if he really existed as described in the Gospels.
The recent documents found in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, and those found near Qumrân in 1947, help us to broaden our knowledge. These Gnostic Christian Writings include the Book of James, the Apocalypses of Peter and Paul. In addition the Dead Sea Scrolls contain versions of the Scriptures, rules of religious life, work of Astrology, Messianic prophecy, apocalypse and moral teaching, … written by a monastic community at the time of Jesus at Qumrân, about twenty miles from Jerusalem. These documents are very similar to some of the New Testament writings, in particular to the fourth Gospel. Semitic studies have also brought deeper knowledge of the life at the time of Jesus, as well as the hope that a portrait of the historical Jesus will be possible one day. (18)