His story is perhaps the most famous on earth. Yet, how much history is known about the man at the center of Christianity is a subject of much debate, with scholars in agreement over some elements of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and hotly divided on others.
There are no “eyewitness” accounts written about Jesus during his lifetime, so historians have to rely on interpretations of the four main canonical gospel text, mostly scrawled severals decades after his death.
Untangling the man from the myth is a delicate undertaking, but should be of interest to those of all faiths, said Tobias Hagerland, a doctorial candidate at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. “I think it’s natural for human beings to ask questions ‘why’ something happened, and those are not exactly the questions dealt with in the Gospels,” said Hagerland. “It could be of interest both to Christian believers and critics of that religion to know which aspects of Christianity are rooted in historical facts and which are derived from religious convictions and experiences that cannot really be evaluated from an historical point of view.”
Jesus not a total mystery
The “Jesus” of history isn’t a complete mystery to Biblical scholars. who often make a distinction between the man and the religious figure depicted in the scriptures. “We do know some things about the historical Jesus — less than some Christians think, but more than some skeptics think.
Though a few books have recently argued that Jesus never existed, the evidence that he did is persuasive to the vast majority of scholars, whether Christian or non-Christian,” said Marcus Borg, a retired professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and current fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of preeminent academics that debate the factuality of Jesus’ life as portrayed in the Bible.
The following “facts” about Jesus would be affirmed by most history scholars, Borg said:
- Jesus was born sometime just before 4 B.C. He grew up in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee, as part of the peasant class. Jesus’ father was a carpenter and he became one, too, meaning that they had likely lost their agricultural land at some point.
- Jesus was raised Jewish and he remained deeply Jewish all of his life. His intention was not to create a new religion, Rather, he saw himself as doing something within Judaism.
- He left Nazareth as an adult, met the prophet John and was baptized by John. During his baptism, Jesus likely experienced some sort of divine vision.
- Shortly afterwards, Jesus began his public preaching with the message that the world could be transformed into a “Kingdom of God”
- He became a noted healer, teacher, and prophet. More healing stories are told about Jesus than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition.
- He was executed by Roman imperial authority.
- His followers experienced him after his death. It is clear that they had visions of Jesus as they had known him during his historical life. Only after his death did they declare Jesus to be “Lord” or the “Son of God.”
Factuality not important
In between those points, the historical details are hard to verify, says Borg, who believes that the importance of less “plausible” stories found in the Bible — such as the resurrection — lies not in whether they actually happened but in what they meant to Jesus’ followers. “If we understand these stories as parables about Jesus — as metaphorical narratives about him — then the questions of their factuality vanishes as an important question, “Borg told LiveScience. “(With this approach,” he continued, “it does not matter whether Jesus was born of a virgin or changed water into wine or walked on water. To those who insist on their factuality, I would say: ‘fine – let’s not argue about that. Now, lets talk about what they mean.”
Some parts of the Bible likely strayed from history for emphasis, Hagerland agrees. The public’s negative reaction to Jesus’s preaching of forgiveness is one example, he said.
“The reactions as depicted in the Gospels must have been exaggerated because, as far as we can know from historical research, no first-century Jew would have considered the proclamation of forgiveness blasphemous,” Hagerland said. “It is far more likely then, that the controversy over Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness is not grounded in historical exchange, but was brought into the episode for rhetorical purposes.”
“Historically, Jesus was executed by the authorities — Roman imperial authority in collaboration with high-ranking priestly authority. Historically he did not ‘die for the sins of the world.’ but he was killed by the powers that ruled his world,” Borg said.
“His followers found meaning in his death,” Borg continued, and even though Jesus likely considered himself a prophet, the titles ascribed to him, “as messiah, Son of God, Lord, and so forth are probably post-Easter affirmations by his followers (and) testimonies to the significance that he come to have in their lives. As testimonies, they are powerful affirmations about Jesus. And for Christians, true, even though they probably don’t go back to Jesus himself”.
Who Was Jesus, the Man? By Heather Whipps, LiveScience
Date: 10 April 2009. Time: 05:03 AM ES
Birthplace of Jesus listed by UN as World Heritage Site
Article: by Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience Managing Editor
Date: 02 July 2012 Time: 04:09 P ET
The Church of the Nativity, considered by Christians the birthplace of Jesus, has been accepted as a cultural World Heritage Site, becoming the first such site in the Palestinian territories. The announcement has garnered plenty of kudos from Palestinians online, though Israel and the United States reportedly lobbied hard against its inscription into the World Heritage List.
The church and the Pilgrimage Route, reside in an Israeli occupied part of the West Bank that’s administered by the Palestinians. Located in the Holy city of ‘Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity, a Byzantine basilica, is built on top of the cave where, according to a tradition first documented in the second century, Jesus was born, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The vote took place in St. Petersburg, Russia, as part of the 36th yearly session of the World Heritage Committee, consisting of representatives from 21 of the States Parties to the Convention. They considered 36 possible World Heritage Sites, with the last site — Lena Pillars Nature Park of the Russian Federation — announced today (July 2). A total of five natural sites and 20 cultural sites were inscribed during this year’s session. The Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem, were also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, as the site suffers from dangers due to water leaks.
Palestine, which became a member of UNISCO in October 2011, presented the church and the surrounding route used for religious pilgrimage as its first site for inscription on the World Heritage List.
The Vote to accept the Palestinians into UNESCO also proved controversial, according to a CNN news report, suggesting the United States held the view that a peace deal should be reached with Israel before the Palestinian territories were granted full UNESCO membership. Becoming a UNESCO member only recently, the Palestinians decided to try to get the church on the list on an emergency basis, something that is used in instances where the site is in immanent danger. Experts on the World Heritage Committee did not think the Church of the Nativity qualified, although it is in need of renovation and conservation, according to an article in the New York Times.
Even so, the site was inscribed into the World Heritage List.
“The United States is profoundly disappointed by the decision of the World Heritage Committee to take immediate emergency action as proposed by the Palestinians to inscribe the ‘Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem’ as a World Heritage site against the official recommendation of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the experts advisory body that evaluated the sites,” David Killion, U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, said in a statement.
Church’s religious history
The site does have strong religious and cultural underpinnings. Helena, mother of Christian Emperor Constantine, is said to have intended the basilica to commemorate Jesus’ birth. The church was one of three imperial churches built in Palestine under the Christine emperor. In A.D. 529, the church was destroyed and built on a much bigger scale, essentially the church that stand today.
The part of the church with the greatest religious and historical significance is arguably the Grotto of the Nativity, according to a description of the church written by Qustandi Shomali, a professor at Bethlehem University. Two entrances now lead to the grotto where an alter was erected over what Christians believe to be Jesus’ birthplace and a 14-pointed star was embedded into the white marbled floor to mark the spot where Jesus was born. The star bears a Latin inscription: “Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus” Est – 1717. translated as, “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.”
” The universal outstanding value of Bethlehem is unquestionable,” UNESCO officials write. “It has been, and continues to be, a focus of Christian belief and worship throughout the centuries. Bethlehem, as well as Jerusalem, became the heart of the Christian world.”
Chad, Congo and Palau also had World Heritage sites inscribed on the list for the first time this year.