Jesus' Life and Times: A Virtual Pilgrimage

 

Our guidebooks

Our main guidebook is the Bible, particularly the gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But, this account also draws on archaeological finds and historical sources, especially the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish officer during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans (66-70 AD). It is also based on the remembrances of those who have had the great privilege of visiting the sites of Jesus' life and ministry in Israel and the area known alternately as Palestine or the "West Bank."

All four gospels are anonymous; the authors never identified themselves in their accounts. The names given them were added later. Matthew, Mark and Luke have a significant amount of material in common and share the same basic outline of Jesus' life and ministry. Therefore, they are known as the "Synoptic" gospels, meaning that they share a common perspective, quite different from that of John, whose contents are highly distinctive.

The purpose of the gospel writers, whoever they were, was to show that Jesus was the son of God, the long-promised Messiah sent by God to redeem those who believe. The gospels are not historical accounts, nor biographies; they were never intended to be chronological records of past events. Therefore they vary in the order in which they record Jesus' life. The differences in sequential order can be attributed to several factors. They were written from different perspectives. Each author was also writing to a particular audience and wished to achieve a particular purpose. This explains why some events are recorded by only one or two of the gospel writers, and why one account includes details not included in other accounts of the same event. Although a cursory reading of the different gospels can be confusing, careful study reveals a striking harmony.

Mark

Mark, the shortest of the gospels, is quick and to the point. Its message is urgent and important and its readers had better listen. An outline of Mark treats Jesus' life as a series of "tours" — several to Galilee, others to the Decapolis, Perea, Judea, the desert and, finally, to Jerusalem. As the earliest account of Jesus' activity (written just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD) and a presumed source of Matthew and Luke, it is a historical document of great importance. Although there is no reference of authorship, it was the unanimous opinion of the early church that it was written by John Mark, a follower of Peter (who is prominent in the story). This Mark was also a cousin of Barnabas and a companion of Paul on his first, as well as the start of his second missionary journeys. His mother's name was Mary and she must have lived comfortably in a house in Jerusalem spacious enough to have at least one large room were the early community of believers could meet for prayer; also, she had a servant girl named "Rhoda" (see Acts 12:13). Furthermore, after Peter was released from prison by an angel, he headed straight for Mary's house where he was well known (see Acts 12:8-12). Mark therefore lived in the very center of the Jerusalem church and no one could have had better opportunities to hear and record first-hand accountsespecially those of Peter — of what Jesus said and did.

The theory that Mark's writing is based on the recollections of Peter was first supported by Papias, a bishop in Phrygia, about 140 AD, who devoted his life to collecting all the information on the early traditions of the church. He wrote: "Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, without however recording in order what was either said or done by Christ." Both Iranaeus, Bishop of Lyons, also writing in the 2nd century AD, and Tertullian of Carthage, in the 3rd century AD, refer to Mark as Peter's interpreter. And the 3rd century AD church historian Eusebius reiterates: "All the contents of Mark's gospel are regarded as memoirs of Peter's discourses."

Mark contains certain vivid touches that seem to have been based on the recollection of an eyewitness. Only Mark, for example, speaks of the Gerasene man possessed by demons crying out night and day among the tombs and cutting himself with stones (Mark 5:5). In a storm on the Sea of Galilee he relates that Jesus was in the stern of the boat "sleeping on a cushion" (Mark 4:38). Only Mark tells the story of a blind man whose sight is restored and who first saw people looking "like trees walking around" (Mark 8:24). Only Mark relates that Jesus took a child "in his arms" and said, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me" (Mark 9:36-37). It is difficult to explain touches like these if they were not derived from the memories of an eyewitness, such as Peter. For all these reasons, Mark is seen as the closest we can get to an eyewitness account of Jesus' life and ministry.

Luke

Luke and its companion volume, Acts, were written between 70 and 90 AD. As with Mark, the author's name does not appear in the book, but unmistakable evidence points to Luke, a physician who, according to New Testament references (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24), accompanied Paul at various times on his missionary journeys. He may have based his narrative on oral and written accounts by those who actually knew Jesus. Luke explicitly states in his opening lines: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus (possibly a new convert, or Luke's patron, responsible for seeing that his writings were copied and distributed) so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:1-4). It is notable that Luke, the only Gentile of the evangelists, wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else. Of the total number of pages in the New Testament his writing takes up 27 percent, more than even Paul.

Luke addressed his gospel primarily to Greek readers and presented Jesus as the "Son of Man," the ideal human being. Luke is especially valuable because it contains one of the two birth narratives (the other is in Matthew); also, Luke alone relates the few details of Jesus' youth.

Matthew

Early church fathers unanimously held that the author of the gospel was Matthew, a man originally called Levi, a tax collector in Capernaum who accepted Jesus' call to become a disciple. However, its dependence on Mark for a substantial part of its material has caused some scholars to discount the apostle as its writer. They question why an eyewitness would need to rely so heavily on someone else's account. The best answer seems to be that he agreed with it and wanted to make sure the testimony of Christ was not divided. Matthew's version of the gospel was published in 80-100 AD.

Matthew was addressed primarily to Jews and presented Jesus as the long-promised Messiah, the King of the Jews, as seen in the visit of the Magi, the entry into Jerusalem, the inscription on the cross and the use (32 times) of the phrase "the kingdom of heaven," found only in Matthew. Although it is the most Jewish of the gospels, it vividly stresses that Jesus' message is for all people. It seems to share Paul's view that the Christian gospel was first proclaimed to Jews and then also to Gentiles. Matthew is particularly valuable for us because it, along with Luke, has a birth narrative.

John

Little is known with certainty about the origin of the this gospel. Most scholars speculate that it emerged in final form toward the end of the 1st century AD (90-100 AD), although it may have passed through several earlier versions. Some commentaries assert that the gospel of John was an eyewitness account, having been based on the recollections of, or was written by, John, son of Zebedee and brother of James, one of Jesus' twelve disciples. He is usually identified with the "the disciple whom Jesus loved" who appears anonymously several times in the book. This assumption is based on the conclusion to the book: "Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them ... This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true" (John 21:20-24). Still, the document is technically anonymous as the name of the author is never given in the contents, and the name of the beloved disciple remains questionable.

The Fourth Gospel, as John is often called, presents a markedly different picture of Jesus' ministry, using more flowing narratives, more lengthy discourses and more elaborate and intense symbolism. He places the greater part of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem and the surrounding region of Judea. According to John Jesus was in the city at the time of several important festivals; he mentions three Passovers and three other festivals, and on most of these he went to the Temple. Each of these occasions revealed something uniquely significant about him.

One of the features of this gospel is its use of names a descriptions of places, especially in Jerusalem. This information is based on a real knowledge of the city as it was before 70 AD, the year the Romans so completely destroyed the city that it would have been nearly impossible to later identify sites and imagine what they must have looked like beforehand. Modern excavations in Jerusalem have shown that John's descriptions of the Pool of Bethesda, the Pool of Siloam and the stone pavement where Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate are based on an intimate knowledge of the city of Jesus' time.


Why did it take so long — 35-plus years — for written accounts of Jesus' life and ministry to appear?


Prior to this time, the expectation of Jesus' imminent return, the close-knit nature of the early Christian communities and the availability of eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry — who could give first-hand accounts of his message — discouraged the need for written records of "all that Jesus began to do and to teach." (Acts 1:1) However, the "delay" in Jesus' return, when the first-generation Christians passed from the scene, and when Christianity spread around the Mediterranean, written accounts became a necessity.

A summary of Jesus' life according to the gospels

Over the course of his very short ministry, of some three years, Jesus affected humanity more than all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever met, all the kings, presidents and dictators that ever ruled, put together. Yet he lived and preached in a small country during a very troubled time.

He was born in Bethlehem amid the hills of Judea and raised in Nazareth of Galilee. As a youth he went with his family to Jerusalem for Passover; as a man he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. After 40 days in the Judean desert near Jericho, "Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching ... and healing" (Matthew 4:23).

Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, a son of Herod "the Great." Antipas' capital, Tiberias, stood on the Sea of Galilee, a 13-mile-long lake both fed and drained by the Jordan River. Ringing the lake were fishing ports like Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, Bethsaida and Capernaum, which Jesus made "his own city." Often he walked the Plain of Gennesaret, and nearby preached the Sermon on the Mount and worked the miracle of loaves and fishes. To the west, at Cana, he changed water to wine; at Nain he raised a widow's son from the dead. To the east, he took his message into Perea (meaning "beyond the Jordan") and the Decapolis, ten Hellenistic (and pagan) cities founded after the Roman takeover in 63 BC. He also journeyed north "to the region of Tyre and Sidon." Later, near Caesarea Philippi in the extreme north, he asked each disciple to "take up his cross, and follow me." In that same classically pagan area, possibly on the snow-capped peak of Mount Hermon, he was revealed as the "beloved Son" of God. Soon after he followed the deep corridor of the Jordan River to Jericho, then "up to" Jerusalem, where the final events of his life — his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension — took place.


The geographical and historical setting


Jesus lived and preached in a small country, roughly the size and shape of the state of Vermont turned upside down. Two thousand years ago — like today — it was a place of great turmoil. In 63 BC, the famed Roman general Pompey conquered the area and placed it under the control of the new Roman province of Syria. In 40 BC the emperor Augustus or Octavian designated Herod as puppet king. Herod, who history knows as Herod the Great, was not of pure Israelite lineage. He was an Idumean (descendents of the hated Edomites) who had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus (134-104 BC). For thirty-three years Herod ruled with a cruel and merciless hand. A great network of hard-surfaced roads was begun, by which the disciplined and well-armed Roman army could travel quickly anywhere to keep order; the Pax Romana ("Roman peace") it enforced made the lands safe for travelers and goods. Generally, this firmly imposed legal and military administration brought economic prosperity. For the sake of unity and pacification, local customs and religions were officially tolerated, but the empire's diverse provinces were encouraged to adopt the culture of ancient Greece and pay homage to the emperor as a sign of loyalty. But the efforts of Rome to institute such policies in Palestine met fierce resistance from the Jews who found many aspects of Roman religion distasteful, including their pantheon of gods (many borrowed directly from the Greeks and renamed) and the practice of emperor worship.

While all Jews hated their Roman oppressors, different classes of society reacted in different ways. The Sadducees, the wealthy aristocracy, collaborated with the Romans to protect their wealth and control of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council/supreme court, which still had some power. The Pharisees and Scribes did not collaborate with the Romans, but withdrew from public affairs and became extremely religious. Other sects, like the Essenes withdrew from society altogether, practicing their beliefs in monasteries, like that at Qumran near the Dead Sea. The Zealots, on the other hand, made open war with the Romans and spread terror with their concealed daggers.

The common people hesitated between the teachings of the Pharisees, a priestly sect who advocated strict observance of religious tradition, and the wild visions of the Zealots, hard-core activists who openly resisted Roman rule. With smoldering hatred, they bore the Roman yoke while false prophets and revolutionaries arose, only to see their followers brutally crushed. Guerrillas and bandits infested the hills, tax collectors squeezed peasants to fatten the Roman treasury (and their own pockets). The Temple, too, imposed a huge burden on the common people, demanding ten percent of all a person had, then adding mandatory offerings for such things as widows, children, animals and the poor. To this the Romans added poll taxes, salt taxes, land taxes, cattle taxes, city taxes, road taxes and frontier taxes (just for passing from one area to another). All the offerings, tithes and taxes, in addition to the widespread corruption, took their toll and contributed to the grinding poverty that permeated the land. Worse than the poverty was the lack of freedom. The Roman Empire was merely the latest in a long line of foreign nations and empires that sought to conquer and control Palestine. Many Jews felt powerless and looked to the coming Messiah, the anointed one promised by the prophets. Surely he would rid them of the Romans and restore the glory and independence of Israel.


And so, our journey begins...


After 6,000 miles in the air from New York City to Ben Gurion Airport, located at the ancient city of Lydda (OT Lod), near Tel Aviv, we head northward on Road 2 through the Plain of Sharon until its junction with Road 65 heading northeast into the Jezreel Valley where we join a man and his pregnant fiancée — Joseph and Marymaking their way south on a week-long, 80-mile journey from their home in Nazareth to the small village of Bethlehem in Judea...

Jesus' Life Home n Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem: Birth of Jesus