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7.2: History of Christianity

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    Jesus Christ (c. 6 / 4 BCE – c. 30 CE), also called Jesus son of Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of Galilee or simply “Christ,” was a Jewish religious leader who became a central figure in Christianity, regarded by most Christian branches as God himself. He is also considered an important prophet in Muslim tradition and the precursor of Prophet Muhammad.

    Christ was not originally Jesus’ name. It was customary among ancient Jews to have only one name and add either the father’s name or the name of their place of origin. This is why during his life; Jesus was called sometimes Jesus of Nazareth and other times Jesus son of Joseph, which is supported by Christian sources (Luke 4.22; John 1.45; 6.42; Acts 10.38). The word, Christ, is not a name but a title derived for the Greek word christos , a term analogous to the Hebrew expression Meshiah, “ The anointed one. ” Many Jews hoped that the former glory of Israel would be restored by a newly anointed son of King David, and they used the Messiah title to refer to this restorer. Early Christian literature sometimes combined the name of Jesus and his title using them together as Jesus’ name: Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. The reason for this is that the early followers of Jesus’ teachings believed he was the Messiah. (39)


    The life of Jesus began in north and central Palestine, a region between the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in the east and the Eastern Mediterranean in the west. This region was under Roman control since the 1st century BCE, initially as a tributary kingdom. The Roman campaigns, coupled with internal revolts and the incursion of the Parthians, made the region very unstable and chaotic up until 37 BCE, when Herod the Great (c.73 BCE – 4 BCE) became king. The region gradually gained political stability and became prosperous. Although Jewish in religion, Herod was a vassal king who served the interests of the Roman Empire.

    After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, the Romans intervened again in order to split up the Herodian kingdom between three of Herod the Great’s sons.

    • Galilee in the north and Perea in the southeast were entrusted to Herod Antipas (c. 20 BCE – c. 39 CE), whose reign (4 BCE – 39 CE) covered the entire life of Jesus.
    • Philip the Tetrarch was appointed ruler over northern Transjordania .
    • Herod Archelaus was made ruler of Samaria , Judea , and Idumea , and he exercised his power with tyranny and brutality; some of these abuses are recorded in the gospel of Matthew (2.20–23). The combination of killings, revolts, and social turbulence in Archelaus’ realm was too much for the patience of Roman authorities: in 6 CE theEmperor Augustus deposed and exiled Archelaus, sending him to Gaul, and his domain became the Roman Province of Iudaea in 6 CE (sometime spelled Judea , not to be confused with Judea proper, the region between Samaria and Idumea). Thus, Iudaea was under direct Roman administration and rulers directly appointed by the Roman Emperor governed the Province.

    None of the gospels shows much interest in dating accurately the birth of Jesus, and there are no references to the Roman dating system, or to any other dating systems used in the Bible. Matthew simply states that Jesus’ birth occurred “in the days of Herod the king [ Herod the Great ].” The exact year for Jesus’ birth is not known for certain, but there is enough ground to believe that he could not have been born any later than 4 BCE. Moreover, though this is the latest he could have been born, it could well be an earlier date, even as early as 17 BCE according to some scholars.

    Map of first century Iudaea Province outlining regions of Phoenicia, Galilee, Samaria, Perea, Idumea, and Judaea proper. Regions referenced in text.
    Figure 7-1: Map of the First Century Iudaea Province by Robert W. Funk is licensed under CC-BY 3.0 .

    Like the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and many other great teachers of Antiquity, Jesus left no written records. To say that he never wrote anything is to contradict the gospel of John (8.7) where we read that Jesus wrote something in the sand with his finger, but after more than two millennia, we can safely assume that these lines, whatever they were, are long gone. Details about his life survived in early Christian oral tradition for many decades until the slow process of committing them to writing started.

    The earliest Christian records mentioning the life of Jesus are the letters ascribed to Saint Paul, many of which are actually of uncertain authorship. Some of these letters date back to approximately 65 CE, maybe a few years earlier. The details in these letters do not offer details of the life of Jesus outside the Last Supper and his execution.

    The Gospels

    We also have the gospels. The word ” gospel ” means ‘ good news ‘ (from Old English) and refers to the accounts of the life of Jesus. Many different gospels have come down to us but only a group of four are accepted by Christian tradition to be inspired by God.

    This group is known as the ” canonical gospels ” and includes the gospels according to Matthew , Mark , Luke , andJohn .

    The remaining gospels are known as ” apocryphal ” or ” non-canonical gospels ” and are not considered to be divinely inspired. Three of the four canonical gospels are labelled as ” synoptic gospels ” (Matthew, Mark and Luke), because their content presents many similarities. John, however, presents a very different picture of events.

    The earliest of the four canonical gospels is believed to be Mark, written probably around 65–70 CE. Its content is not arranged chronologically, but according to subjects, such as miracle stories, parables, pronouncement stories, etc. The only segment arranged chronologically is the Passion narrative (14.1–16.8). The two later synoptic gospels are Matthew, written around 85-90 CE, and Luke, about 90–100 CE. It is widely believed that the authors of these two gospels used Mark as their main source. In addition to Mark, there is a hypothetical source of the teaching of Jesus used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, which is known as the “Q” source (from the German word Quelle, “ source ”). (39)

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