I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison.Napoleon1
Whether Jesus was a mere man or God incarnate is debatable. That he has had a greater influence on human history than any other person is not really.
The Bible, the book that tells us more about Jesus than any other, is the best-selling book of all time.2 More people have seen films about Jesus than about any other person in history.3 Over two billion people—roughly one-third of the world’s population—call themselves Christians, orienting their beliefs and lives around Jesus Christ.4 Even the calendar we use is set by Jesus’ birth.
So who is this guy? Specifically, what does history say about him? And why has his influence been so enduring? Who is Jesus?
A Jew in the Early First Century CE
Sometime around 4 BCE, Jesus was born to a young peasant couple who settled in Galilee, a region on the eastern side of the Roman Empire.5 At Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great ruled Galilee as a client-king of Rome.
Very little is known about Jesus’ childhood. He grew up in a small village called Nazareth, where his family likely spoke Aramaic.6 He had brothers and sisters and became a carpenter in line with his family’s trade.7
His later teaching demonstrates that he had a good education and possibly studied under a Jewish rabbi. By the time he was in his thirties, his mother was still living, but since Joseph is not mentioned, it is likely he had passed away.8
A Teacher, Miracle-Worker, and Would-Be Messiah
At about the age of thirty, Jesus left behind his private life in Nazareth for a public life of teaching and preaching in Galilee and beyond. His first recorded “sermon” in a Jewish synagogue both astounded and challenged listeners.9
He also began performing miracles, which eyewitnesses later reported.10 Josephus, a famous Jewish historian, described Jesus as “a wise man . . . a worker of amazing deeds and a teacher of people.”11
Later, when rumors were swirling around about who Jesus was, one of his followers blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”12 Jesus praised Peter’s observation but told the disciples to keep this revelation under wraps. He knew that tales of a new king in Israel would mean swift, decisive Roman action against him.
In the first century CE, many Jewish people longed to be free of Roman occupation. They hoped and waited for a leader who would liberate them from Rome’s heavy hand.
But Jesus had a different mission. He came to liberate them, yes, but in more than political ways. Jesus was to be a different kind of king and offer a different kind of freedom.
Whenever he engaged with the people’s leaders, Jesus always challenged their categories. He healed the unclean instead of avoiding them. He befriended Gentiles, tax collectors, and prostitutes instead of shunning them. He even associated with Roman soldiers and instructed the Jews to pay their Roman taxes.
How could a man like this be their Messiah?13
A Revolutionary Who Was Executed
Everything came to a head during Passover week in or around 30 CE.14 When Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate the festival, people initially welcomed him as a king.15
With his popularity soaring, he visited the temple and lamented its decay from a house of worship into a marketplace of hypocrisy. And when it became clear that Jesus would always be a threat to the temple leaders, their systems of control, and their political ambitions, the religious leaders set out to get rid of him.16
On the night before Passover, Jesus was arrested and questioned by the Jewish and Roman authorities. The next day, the crowds had turned on him. Pilate, the Roman ruler over Judea, gave in to their wishes and sentenced him to be executed for insurrection.
Jesus’ crucifixion is one of the best attested events of that period in history. Each of the four Gospel accounts in the Bible devotes significant space to its description.17 Non-biblical writers such as Thallus, Josephus, Mara bar Serapion, and others also refer to it. Even the great Roman historian Tacitus confirms, “The founder of [Christianity], Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”18
A Man Who Started a Movement
If the story had ended with Jesus’ death, we might never have known about him. At best, he would be a footnote in history like other would-be messiahs of that time.
But three days after his execution, Jesus’ body went missing from the tomb where it had been laid. The Roman guards were baffled and embarrassed. Excuses were made. Then, in an announcement that would echo across centuries, his followers claimed that Jesus was alive—that they had seen him.
Jesus had not simply escaped or cheated death—the gruesome details of his crucifixion proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had died.19 But God had raised him from the dead, they said, given him a new body, and done something that would change the world.
Hundreds of people professed to see Jesus alive in the days that followed. Not only had the risen Jesus appeared to his closest disciples, but he also appeared to those who doubted and opposed him.
In the minds of Jesus’ followers, this vindicated all of his teachings and claims about being not just the Messiah for Israel, but Lord and Savior for the entire world. His death, as they understood it, had been a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
Jesus experienced the consequences of sin so that all who believe in him could experience forgiveness and eternal life. His own victory over death was the precursor of new life for all who chose to follow him.
This gospel message quickly spread from the streets of Jerusalem to the heart of the Roman Empire. Thousands believed, then millions. Today, it continues to challenge all who ask who Jesus is.
“Everything in Christ astonishes me,” wrote Napoleon. “I search in vain in history to find one similar to Jesus Christ, or anything that can approach the gospel. Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature, offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or to explain it. Here everything is extraordinary.”20
- There have been various English translations from the original French, but the quotation was first recorded in Beauterne, Sentiment de Napoléon sur le Christianisme: conversations religieuses recueillies à Sainte-Hélène par M. le general comte de Montholon (Paris: Bray, 1841). For a full explanation of the historicity of the account, see Alexander Mair, “Testimony of Napoleon I. with Regard to Christ” in The Expositor, ed. Robertson Nicoll (May 1890), 366–381.
- See Leland Ryken, “How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time,” Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111903918104576502782310557332.
- Giles Wilson, “The Most Watched Film in History,” BBC News Online Magazine, July 21, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3076809.stm.
- “Fast Facts on Christianity,” Religion Facts, http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/fastfacts.htm.
- This region had once been inhabited by the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali.
- For details about Jesus’ hometown and family from a later visit, see The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 13:53–57.
- The Bible mentions four brothers of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (see Matthew 13:55). For other biblical references to Jesus’ siblings, see Matthew 12:46, Mark 3:31, Luke 8:19, John 7:3, Acts 1:14, and Galatians 1:19. Sisters are also mentioned, although not named (see Matthew 13:56). Some Catholics maintain that Mary’s virginity continued after the birth of Jesus and that, rather than siblings, these individuals were cousins or relatives.
- At Jesus’ death around 30 CE, he instructs his disciple John to take care of his mother from that time on, indicating that Joseph, his mother’s husband, had died (see John 19:25–27).
- See The Holy Bible, Luke 4:14–30.
- Accounts of miracles are scattered throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
- Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 81–104.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 16:13–20.
- For helpful background on Jewish expectations in the first century CE and the way Jesus challenged them, see N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
- It’s possible this took place later than 30 CE; some scholars believe 33 CE is more accurate.
- See The Holy Bible, Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, and John 12:12–19.
- For one Gospel’s full account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the “cleansing” of the temple, and the plot of the religious leaders against Jesus, see The Holy Bible, Matthew 21:1–26:16.
- For one Gospel’s full account of Jesus’ crucifixion and the events leading up to it, see The Holy Bible, Matthew 26:17–27:61.
- Each of the Gospels records Jesus’ arrest, examinations, death, and burial at length. See The Holy Bible, Matthew 26–27, Mark 14–15, Luke 22–23, and John 18–19. For references to Jesus’ death outside of the New Testament, including the statement made by Tacitus, see Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament.
- To learn more about the medical implications and plausibility of Jesus surviving his torture and crucifixion, see chapter 11, “The Medical Evidence: Was Jesus’ Death a Sham and His Resurrection a Hoax? With Dr. Alexander Metherell,” in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 255–274.
- Beauterne, Sentiment de Napoléon.
- Photo Credit: Richard Paul Kane / Shutterstock.com.