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The Life of Jesus of Nazareth

Adapted from Christian scripture, New Revised Standard Version.

Jesus of Nazareth, baby of a poor Jewish family, was born in a stable in Bethlehem in the region of Galilee. His parents, Mary and Joseph, had traveled there as required by law for the Roman census. Jesus learned the trade of his father, a carpenter. The Bible states that as a boy he was filled with wisdom.

He did not always follow the rules. The only Bible story of Jesus as a child tells of his going to Jerusalem with his family for a huge, week-long Passover festival. When the family began the journey home, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph thought the 12-year-old was with friends, and he wasn't missed until the end of the day. Frantic, they eventually found him back in Jerusalem. He had been in the great temple all day, discussing religious matters with the rabbis. Mary and Joseph were furious, but Jesus said to his parents, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2: 49) Jesus was not referring to Joseph; the scriptures suggest the father he was referring to was God.

Jesus returned home and lived a quiet life until he was about 31 years old. At that time, he traveled to the region of Judaea to seek John the Baptist, a revered holy man who preached that the messiah anticipated by Jewish prophets would soon arrive. Jesus asked John to baptize him in the River Jordan. John protested, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus said, "Let it be so now," so John agreed and baptized Jesus (Matthew 3: 14-15).

After his baptism, Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days. When he emerged from the desert, he began his ministry. In the biblical chapter of Acts, the Apostle Peter describes Jesus in this simple way: "He went about doing good." Indeed, for the three years following his baptism—and three years was all that remained of his life—this is exactly what Jesus did: he traveled almost constantly, mostly on foot, around the region near Jerusalem, preaching and teaching the love of God.

Jesus taught differently from other rabbis. He taught that there was a higher authority than earthly law, even than Judaic Law, and that being true to that higher moral law was more important than anything else. He even delivered a New Commandment which he said superceded all others. While the core of the existing commandments could be said to be "Obey," the core of the New Commandment was "Love." Jesus said: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." Another time Jesus said: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (Mark 12: 30-31).

Some Jewish authorities were incensed that Jesus would presume to offer a new commandment and claim it outranked commandments they had lived by and transmitted loyally for thousands of year. They did not believe Jesus was the messiah that their faith had prophesied. They considered Jesus dangerous, a blasphemer, a charismatic charlatan who undermined the Jewish faith. They challenged his authority and told Jesus to stop, but he would not.

Jesus continued preaching and helping people. He fed them, healed them, and encouraged them to be kind and forgiving to one another. He also taught in simple stories called parables which made important ideas easy to understand. This endeared Jesus to the common people, but Jewish and civic leaders were suspicious of his influence and intentions.

In Jesus' first year of preaching, he gathered twelve loyal followers to travel with him, the Apostles. Jesus did not seek fame, but his fame grew. Crowds gathered and followed him wherever he went. Authorities became increasingly worried about his influence and concerned that people would defy their authority and follow Jesus. When they heard Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, some conspired to kill him.

Elders of the Jewish priesthood bribed Judas, one of the Apostles, with thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus. When Judas identified Jesus with a kiss, soldiers arrested Jesus and hauled him before Caiaphas the high priest for judgment. With very little evidence, Caiaphas condemned Jesus of blasphemy. They beat Jesus, cursed him, spat on him. Caiaphas did not have the authority to order an execution, however; only Pontius Pilate, the civil governor, could do that, so the following morning they took Jesus before Pilate.

Pilate tried to talk the clamoring crowd out of their demand to see Jesus crucified—a gruesome and brutal form of execution that was common at the time. But the people "shouted all the more, 'Let him be crucified.'" Pilate gave in to this pressure, but declared himself "innocent of the blood of this just person" (Matthew 27: 23-24). He had Jesus publicly whipped, then turned him over to the mob.

Jesus was tortured by the mob: jeered at, spat on, stabbed, made to wear a crown of thorns, made to walk to his own execution site carrying the huge cross on which he would be crucified. Finally, they nailed his hands and feet to the cross and left him hanging in the sun to die. It took hours. At last he cried, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and died (Mark 14: 34).

Throughout his life, Jesus never traveled farther than ninety miles from the place he was born. He preached for only three years. He taught love, forgiveness, and mercy, yet was treated with brutality. Perhaps the final abuse of him helped create the very result the authorities feared: in the end, this fervent, barefooted, itinerant preacher did change the world.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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