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7.3: Life of Jesus and The Apostle Paul

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    Life of Jesus

    Jesus was born towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE) and brought up in Nazareth, Galilee. He was named Jesus (Yeshu’a in Aramaic, Yehoshua or Joshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Roman) and was conceived between the engagement and marriage of his parents whose names were Mary (Miriam in Hebrew and Mariam in Aramaic) and Joseph (Yossef in Hebrew, Yosep in Aramaic).

    In Matthew 13.55 it is said that his father was a carpenter, and Mark 6.3 says that this was also Jesus’ profession. It was a common practice during that time that sons would follow their father’s occupation, so it would be safe to believe that Jesus was a carpenter. Although not certain, it is probable that Jesus’ education included a detailed study of the Hebrew Scriptures, a very common practice among the devout poor in Israel. (39)

    Jesus’ Public Ministry

    His public ministry began after being baptized by John the Baptist . According to the gospel of Luke, this was when Jesus was about 30 years of age. According to Mark (11.27–33), Jesus saw John the Baptist as an authority and possibly a source of inspiration. It seems that he performed baptisms parallel to John the Baptist (John 3.22). After the arrest of John the Baptist (Mark 1.14), Jesus began a new kind of ministry, spreading the message of the kingdom of God approaching and stressing the importance of repentance by the people of Israel.

    Jesus was heavily influenced by the prophet Isaiah, who considered the coming of the reign of God a central topic (Isa. 52.7). Many of Jesus’ teachings have allusions to Isaiah, and he also quotes him on many occasions. Jesus is presented as an eschatological prophet announcing the definitive coming of God, its salvation, and the end of time.

    Jesus gradually gained popularity and thousands of followers are mentioned in the gospels. He shared some attributes with the Pharisees and the Essenes, two of the Jewish sects at that time.

    • Like the Pharisees, Jesus’ teaching methods included the expression of thoughts about the human condition in the form of aphorisms and parables, and he also shared the belief in the genuine authority of Hebrew sacred scriptures.
    • Unlike the Pharisaic teachers, Jesus believed that outward compliance with the law was not of utmost importance and that values such as the love for enemies were more important. Moreover, Jesus summed up his ethical views in the double command concerning love:

    “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12.28-31; Matthew 22.35-40 and Luke 10.25-28).

    Painting of Jesus surrounded by followers, delivering His Sermon on the Mountain.
    Figure 7-2: The Sermon on the Mountain by Arsène Robert is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0 .

    The Essenes had a very simple way of life, a pacifist spirit, common ownership of property, common meals, they practiced exorcisms, and they stressed the love for each other, all practices seen in the ministry of Jesus. (39)

    Jesus’ prophetic preaching (the coming of God’s kingly rule) and his wisdom teaching (the command of love) are never explicitly linked to one another. This gap has been subject to endless discussions and interpretations in many traditions. A possible interpretation is that only the coming of God’s kingdom makes it possible for people to love God in complete obedience and to love their neighbors, including enemies. This is, however, a matter of speculation. (39)

    Jesus’ Arrest and Condemnation to Death

    At some point towards the end of his career, Jesus moved to Jerusalem, Judea, reaching the climax of his public life. Here he engaged in different disputes with his many adversaries. At the same time, some religious authorities were seeking to entrap him into self-incrimination by raising controversial topics, mostly of a theological nature. The gospels offer different reasons as to why the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) was interested in executing Jesus, but only John (11.47-53) seems convincing enough: Jesus was seen as a trouble-maker who threatened public harmony.

    A Roman intervention to restore order, thus breaking the fine balance between Jewish and Roman power, did not interest the Sanhedrin. An arresting party finally took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, where he was judged, found guilty of blasphemy, and condemned to death. However, the execution order had to be issued by a Roman authority; the Jewish court did not have such power at that time. Therefore, Jesus was brought to the procurator of Rome who ordered Jesus’ execution. Because Jesus never denied the charges, he should have been convicted and not executed, as the Roman law required in case of confession for such a penalty. On a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was finally crucified and killed, which was not a Jewish form of punishment but a common Roman practice. (39)

    The Apostle Paul

    Paul was a follower of Jesus Christ who famously converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus after persecuting the very followers of the community that he joined. However, as we will see, Paul is better described as one of the founders of the religion rather than a convert to it. Scholars attribute seven books of the New Testament to Paul; he was an influential teacher and a missionary to much of Asia Minor and present-day Greece.

    In the last century, scholars have come to appreciate Paul as the actual founder of the religious movement that would become Christianity. Paul was a Diaspora Jew, a member of the party of the Pharisees, who experienced a revelation of the resurrected Jesus. After this experience, he traveled widely throughout the eastern Roman Empire, spreading the “good news” that Jesus would soon return from heaven and usher in the reign of God (“the kingdom”). Paul was not establishing a new religion; he believed that his generation was the last before the end time when this age would be transformed. However, as time passed and Jesus did not return, the second century Church Fathers turned to Paul’s writings to validate what would ultimately be the creation of Christian dogma. Thus, Paul could be viewed as the founder of Christianity as a separate religion apart from Judaism.

    Paul’s Letters and the Law of Moses

    In the New Testament, we have fourteen letters traditionally assigned to Paul, but the scholarly consensus now holds that of the fourteen, seven were actually written by Paul:

    • 1 Thessalonians
    • Galatians
    • Philemon
    • Philippians
    • 1 & 2 Corinthians
    • Romans

    The others were most likely written by a disciple of Paul’s, using his name to carry authority. We understand these letters to be circumstantial, meaning they were never intended as systematic theology or as treatises on Christianity. In other words, the letters are responses to particular problems and circumstances as they arose in the various communities. They were not written as universal dictates to serve as Christian ideology but only came to have importance and significance over time.

    Paul was a Pharisee, and claims that when it came to “the Law,” he was more zealous and knew more about the law than anyone else. For the most part in his Letters, the Law at issue was the Law of Moses. He was of the tribe of Benjamin (and thus Luke could use the prior name Saul, a quite famous Benjaminite name; name changes often go with a change of viewpoint in terms of a new person — Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, etc.).

    Paul has also become the most famous convert in history. Being struck blind on the road to Damascus has become a metaphor for sudden enlightenment and conversion.

    In Galatians , Paul said he received a vision of the resurrected Jesus, who commissioned him to be the Apostle to the gentiles. This was crucial for Paul in terms of his authority. Everyone knew that he was never one of the inner circle, so a directive straight from Jesus was the way in which Paul argued that he had as much authority as the earlier Apostles. This is also crucially important in unraveling Paul’s views of the Law of Moses when it comes to his recruitment area, and something that should always be borne in mind when trying to analyze his views.

    Paul’s job, as he saw it, was to bring “ the good news ” to the gentiles. Almost everything he writes about the Law pertains to this. The Law of Moses was never understood to be applied to the gentiles in Israelite tradition, so gentiles need not be subject to circumcision, dietary laws, or Sabbath regulations. These three are the focus, as they are physical rituals that keep communities separated, and Paul sought to breakdown barriers between communities.

    Another phase of Paul’s became the basis of centuries of commentary, culminating in Martin Luther’s separation from the Church of Rome. Paul claimed that gentiles are saved by faith alone, and not by works of the Law.

    We cannot confirm where or how Paul died. Paul’s letter to the Romans is most likely one of his last surviving works in which he told his audience that he was going to Jerusalem for a visit and then would come to Rome to see them (with plans to continue on to Spain). Luke told the story of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, where he (as a Roman citizen) had the right of appeal to the Emperor in Rome. The Book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, continuing his preaching. It is only in later, second-century, narratives that we find legendary material of Paul’s trial in Rome (with alleged letters between Paul and the Stoic philosopher, Seneca). After conviction, he was beheaded and his body buried outside the walls of the city, on the road to Ostia, so that his grave would not become a shrine. Years later, this site would become the current basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s, Outside-the-Walls , and the Vatican has always claimed that his body rests in a sarcophagus within the church. (40)

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