Religion Wiki
A series of articles on

Jesus Christ and Christianity
ChronologyVirgin Birth
Second ComingChristology
Names and titlesRelicsActive obedience

Cultural and historical background
Language spokenRace

Perspectives on Jesus
Jesus and history
Belief in Jesus
Biblical JesusReligious
HistoricityIn myth
Historical JesusResearch

Jesus in culture

The four canonical gospels of the New Testament are the main sources of information for the doctrinal Christian narrative of Jesus' life. There is not a single New Testament "view" of Jesus' life, the four gospels tell different but dependent stories. There is wide consensus among contemporary critical scholars that Mark is the earliest written gospel, dating to around 70, that the authors of Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark when they wrote, and adapted Mark for their purposes, and that John, written last, had knowledge of the other three.[1] It has been the work of Christian apologists since Tatian to blend the four books into a coherent account, Tatian's work was the Diatessaron, a "harmony," or synthesis, of the four New Testament Gospels into a combined narrative of the life of Jesus. Ephrem the Syrian referred to it as the Evangelion da Mehallete ("The Gospel of the Mixed"). This article comes from that synthetic tradition.

In all four gospels, Jesus conducted a miraculous ministry, leads a circle of disciples, draws the ire of religious authorities, is crucified, and rises from the dead. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic gospels, portray Jesus as the Son of God, a healer and exorcist who told parables about the Kingdom of God and coming Judgment. Jesus' identity as the Messiah is kept secret, except to chosen disciples. For example, the current generation was denied any sign in Mark, or given only the Sign of Jonah in Matthew and Luke. John portrays Jesus as the physical incarnation of the Logos, or Divine Word. John's Jesus tells no parables, demonstrates his divine identity with seven signs, and speaks at length about himself. John makes no direct reference to the synoptic concept of a coming judgment.

Genealogy and family

The Gospels give two different accounts of Jesus' genealogy through Joseph (Matt 1:2–16; Luke 3:23–38).[2] Both accounts trace his line back to King David and from there to Abraham. These lists are identical between Abraham and David, but they differ between David and Joseph. Matthew starts with Solomon and proceeds through the kings of Judah to the last king, Jeconiah. After Jeconiah the line of kings terminated when Babylon conquered Judah. Thus, Matthew presents Jesus as the heir to the throne of Israel. Luke's genealogy is longer than Matthew's; has more names between David and Jesus, and traces the line back to Adam, the traditional first human being.

Joseph is not mentioned in Mark, the earliest Gospel; there Jesus is referred to as 'the son of Mary' (Mark 6:3). With Jesus commending Mary into the care of the beloved disciple during his crucifixion (John 19:25–27); later Christian tradition suggested that he had died by the time of Jesus' ministry.[3] Both Matthew 13:55–56 and Mark 6:3 tell of Jesus' relatives. Mark 6:3 reports that those hearing Jesus asked, "Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, mentions at 1:19 that "I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord's brother." The first-century Jewish historian Josephus also describes James the Just as "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ" (translation of William Whiston [1]), though this passage has been suggested as an interpolation (see Josephus on Jesus). Additionally, the Christian historian Eusebius (who wrote in the 4th century but quoted earlier sources that are now lost) refers to James the Just as Jesus' brother (see Desposyni). However, Epiphanius argued that they were "Joseph's children by his (unrecorded) first wife", while Jerome argued that they were "Jesus' cousins". The Greek word adelphos in these verses is translated as brother in many Bible translations. However, the word can refer to any familial relation, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, along with certain other Christians, contend, in accordance with their belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, that the correct translation of adelphos is kinsman and suppose it to refer to cousins or at most half-brothers.

The Gospel of Luke states that Mary was a relative of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36), though the exact relationship is unspecified and may be an invention of the author of the Gospel.[4].

Nativity and childhood

According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea to Mary, a virgin, by a miracle of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she was chosen to bear the Son of God (Luke 1:26–38, the Annunciation). According to Luke, an order of Caesar Augustus forced Mary and Joseph to leave their homes in Nazareth and come to the home of Joseph's ancestors, the house of David, for a census. After Jesus' birth the couple had to use a manger for a crib because there was no room for them in the town's inn or family guest room.[5] According to Luke 2:8–20, an angel spread the word of Jesus' birth to shepherds who came to see the newborn child and subsequently publicised throughout the area what they had witnessed (see The First Noël).

The story in the Gospel of Matthew has largely different details. This account tells of the "Wise Men" or "Magi" who brought gifts to the infant Jesus after following a star which they believed was a sign that the Messiah, or King of the Jews, had been born.

Jesus' childhood home is stated in the Bible to have been the town of Nazareth in Galilee, and aside from a flight to Egypt in infancy to escape Herod's Massacre of the Innocents and a short trip to Tyre and Sidon, all other events in the Gospels are set in ancient Israel.[6] Luke's Finding in the Temple (Luke 2:41–52) is the only event between Jesus' infancy and adult life mentioned in any of the canonical Gospels, although New Testament apocrypha fill in the details of this time, some quite extensively.

Because of the divergence between the accounts and the mythic nature of some of the details, many modern scholars regard the nativity stories as pious fictions.[7][8] Matthew's accounts emphasize Jesus' identity as the King of the Jews, such as with the visit of the wise men. Luke's account emphasizes Jesus' humble origins, such as when the shepherds adore him in the manger. Mark begins with Jesus' baptism. John begins with the Logos at the beginning of creation. Neither of these gospels discusses Jesus' nativity or childhood.

Baptism and temptation

Ary Scheffer's The Temptation of Christ

All four gospels describe Jesus as present at John the Baptist's ministry of baptism.

The Gospel of Mark begins with the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which Biblical scholars describe as the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. According to Mark, Jesus came to the Jordan River where John the Baptist had been preaching and baptising people in the crowd. In Luke, Jesus is merely another member of the crowd that had come to see John, and is baptised by an unnamed individual that may or may not be John. While Matthew and Mark report that Jesus seeks out John to be baptised by him. After Jesus had been baptised and rose from the water, Mark states Jesus "saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'" (Mark 1:10–11). Luke adds the chronological details that John the Baptist had begun preaching in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, c. 28 (Luke 3:1) and that Jesus was about thirty years old when he was baptised (Luke 3:23). Matthew adds to the other accounts by describing an attempt by John to decline the baptism, saying that it is Jesus who should baptise John. Jesus insisted however, claiming that baptism was necessary to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matt 3:15). In John's gospel it is John the Baptist who has the vision of the dove/Holy Spirit and who recognises Jesus as being "the lamb of God" and the Christ, while the actual baptism is not explicitly mentioned.

Following his baptism, according to Matthew, Jesus was led into the desert by God where he fasted for forty days and forty nights. During this time the devil appeared to him and tempted Jesus to demonstrate his supernatural powers as proof of his divinity, each temptation being refused by Jesus with a quote of scripture from the Book of Deuteronomy. In all, he was tempted three times. The Gospels state that having failed, the devil departed and angels came and brought nourishment to Jesus.

Mark's account is very brief, merely noting the aforementioned events, but giving no details about them, not even how many there were. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, describe the temptations by recounting the details of the conversations between Jesus and the devil.

Both the Baptism and the Temptation are included in Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) and the Gospel of the Hebrews (noncanonical Gospel), but there is no mention of these events in the Gospel of John.


The Baptism of Christ (detail), by Piero della Francesca, 1449.

The Gospels state that Jesus is the Messiah,[9] "Son of God",[10] and "Lord and God",[11] sent to "give his life as a ransom for many" and "preach the good news of the kingdom of God."[12] The Gospels also state that Jesus travelled as a wandering rabbi and performed various miracles, including healings, exorcisms, walking on water, turning water into wine, and raising several people, such as Lazarus, from the dead (John 11:1–44).

The Gospel of John describes three different passover feasts over the course of Jesus' ministry. This implies that Jesus preached for a period of three years, although some interpretations of the Synoptic Gospels suggest a span of only one year. The focus of his ministry was toward his closest adherents, the Twelve Apostles, though many of his followers were considered disciples. At the height of his ministry, Jesus attracted huge crowds numbering in the thousands, primarily in the areas of Galilee (in modern-day northern Israel, though he was unsuccessful in his hometown: Mark 6:4–6) and Perea (in modern-day western Jordan), most notably in Capernaum. Jesus led what many believe to have been an apocalyptic following.

Some of Jesus' most famous teachings come from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), which contains the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer. During his sermons he preached against anger, lust, divorce, oaths and revenge. Some aspects of Jesus' teachings were traditional, but other aspects were not. He advocated and adhered to the Law of Moses.[13] According to Matthew 5:17–19, Jesus stated, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." However, Jesus also expounded on Mosaic Law and taught what he said was a new commandment.[14] Jesus advocated, among other things, turning the other cheek, love for one's enemies as well as friends, and the need to follow the spirit of the law in addition to the letter (Matt 5).

Judaea and Galilee at the time of Jesus

In the Synoptics, Jesus often used parables, such as the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) and the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1–9). His teachings centered on unconditional, self-sacrificing love for God and for all people (Matt 22:34–40). He also preached about service and humility, the forgiveness of sin, pacifism, faith, and attaining everlasting life in "The Kingdom of God". He preached an apocalyptic message, saying that the end of the current world would come unexpectedly; as such, he called on his followers to be ever alert and faithful. The Olivet Discourse is an example of this.

In John, Jesus speaks at length about himself without using parables.[15] He defines his own divine role in secret speeches to his disciples.[15] Instead of speaking of his Second Coming, he assures his followers that spirit will abide with them.[15]

He taught that the first would be last, and the last first; also that "anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt 16:25); and that non-violence should be used to combat violence. He said that he gives peace to those who believe in him, yet he warned that he was bringing strife to the world, setting family members against one another (Luke 14:26).

Jesus also debated with other religious leaders. He disagreed with the Sadducees because they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (Matt 22:23–32). The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees is more complex. Although Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, he also dined with Pharisees, taught in their synagogues, specified their teachings to his followers, and counted Pharisees such as Nicodemus among his disciples.[16]

Jesus' critics claimed he was a drunk and a glutton,[17] who often shared meals with society's outcasts, such as prostitutes and publicans (Imperial tax collectors despised for extorting money), including the apostle Matthew; when the Pharisees objected to meeting with sinners rather than the righteous, Jesus replied that it was the sick who need a physician, not the healthy (Matt 9:9–13). According to Luke and John, Jesus also made efforts to extend his ministry to the Samaritans, who followed a different form of the Israelite religion. This is reflected in his preaching to the Samaritans of Sychar, resulting in their conversion (John 4:1–42).

In the Synoptics, Jesus enjoins demons and mortals not to reveal his identity as the Son of God (see Messianic secret). In Mark, the current generation will be given no sign to demonstrate Jesus' authority (8:12). In Matthew and Luke, the current generation would be given only one sign, the Sign of Jonah. John portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles specifically as signs (in the so-called Signs Gospel).

All four Gospels record Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the end of his ministry. This was during the Passover Feast (15 Nisan; in the spring) according to John 12:12–19. The Hosanna shout and the waving of palm fronds were ordinarily part of the feast of Sukkoth (15 Tishri; autumn), but appear to have been moved by the followers of Jesus to Passover, perhaps because of their Messianic associations.

Arrest, trial, and death

The narrative of Jesus and the Money Changers occurs in both the Synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John, although it occurs close to the end of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 11:15–19; Matthew 21:12–17; Luke 19:45–48) but close to the start in John (at John 2:12–25). In the episode Jesus is stated to have visited the Temple in Jerusalem, Herod's Temple, at which the courtyard is described as being filled with livestock, which were sold for use in the Temple, and the tables of the money changers, who changed other currencies into the Jewish half shekel, which was the only coinage allowed in Temple ceremonies [18]. According to the Gospels, Jesus took offence to this, and drives out the livestock, scatters the coins of the money changers, and turns over their tables and those of the people selling doves. In the synoptics Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem upon a colt. Matthew, citing Zachariah 9:9, claims Jesus rode not only a colt, but also a donkey, and simultaneously. The synoptics also mention three other Old Testament references. The crowds greet Jesus by repeating the verses of Psalm 118:26. And after over turning the money tables, Jesus chastises the money changers with a combination of Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11: "It is written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a den of robbers" (Matt 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).

According to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus ate a meal, called The Last Supper, with his disciples before going to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane (the Last Supper in John's gospel occurs possibly two years after the overturning of the tables). This meal was possibly the Passover Seder. In the course of the Last Supper, according to the synoptics (but not John), Jesus divides up some bread, says grace, and hands the pieces to his disciples, saying, "This is my body". He then takes a cup of wine, says grace, and hands it around, saying, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured for many". Finally, he tells the disciples, "Do this in remembrance of me".

While in the garden, Jesus was arrested by Roman soldiers on the orders of the Sanhedrin and the high priest, Caiaphas (cited later in Matt 26:65–67). The authorities had decided to arrest Jesus, since some of them had come to consider him a threat to their power because of his growing popularity, his new interpretations of scripture, and his revelations of their hypocrisy. The arrest took place clandestinely at night to avoid a riot, because Jesus was popular with the people at large (Mark 14:2). According to the synoptics, Judas Iscariot, one of his apostles, betrayed Jesus by identifying him to the guards with a kiss[19]. By John's account Jesus identified himself to the guards with the words "I am he" (John 18:4–6). Another apostle (identified as Simon Peter in John 18:10) used a sword to attack one of the captors, cutting off his ear, which, according to Luke, Jesus immediately healed (Luke 22:51). Jesus rebuked the apostle, stating, "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matt 26:52). After his arrest Jesus' apostles went into hiding. The high priests and elders asked Jesus, "Are you the Son of God?" and upon Jesus' reply of "You say that I am" (Luke 22:70–71), Jesus was condemned for blasphemy by the Sanhedrin. The high priests then turned him over to the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, based on an accusation of sedition for claiming to be King of the Jews (Matt 27:11; Mark 15:12).

While before Pilate, Jesus was questioned "Are you the king of the Jews?" to which he replied, "It is as you say." According to the Gospels, Pilate personally felt that Jesus was not guilty of any crime against the Romans, and since there was a custom at Passover for the Roman governor to free a prisoner (a custom not recorded outside the Gospels and questioned by scholars), Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus of Nazareth and an insurrectionist named Barabbas (the name means "Son of the Father" in Aramaic). The crowd chose to have Barabbas freed and Jesus crucified. According to Matthew, Pilate washed his hands to display that he himself was innocent of the injustice of the decision (Matt 27:11–26). Pilate, attempting to placate the crowd, had Jesus scourged. The crowd demanded that Jesus be crucified, and Pilate relented. At some point Roman soldiers fashioned a crown out of thorns and placed it on Jesus' head.

All four Gospels say Pilate then ordered Jesus to be crucified with a charge placed atop the cross (known as the titulus crucis) which read something along the lines of "King of the Jews", depending on the gospel account. (The titulus crucis is often written as INRI, the Latin acronym.) Having carried his own cross (according to John), Jesus was crucified on Golgotha. According to the Gospel of Luke, as he was crucified, Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do." As he hung on the cross, he was mocked by passers-by and given a drink of wine vinegar. According to the Gospel of John, he was visited by his mother and others; then his death was confirmed by a Roman soldier piercing his side with a spear (John 19:34).

According to Matthew and Mark, his last words were "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which is Aramaic for "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (taken from Ps 22); according to John, "It is finished"; and according to Luke, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit", see also Sayings of Jesus on the cross. Luke states that all the multitudes who had witnessed Jesus' crucifixion were sorrowful (Luke 23:48).

According to all four Gospels, Jesus died before late afternoon, and the wealthy Judean Joseph of Arimathea, according to Mark (Mark 15:42–46) and Luke (Luke 23:50–56) a member of the Sanhedrin, received Pilate's permission to take possession of Jesus' body, placing it in a tomb. According to John, Joseph was joined in burying Jesus by Nicodemus, who appears in other parts of John's gospel (John 19:38–42). The synoptic gospels tell of an earthquake and of the darkening of the sky from twelve until three that afternoon.

Resurrection and Ascension

A 16th century painting of the resurrection of Jesus by Matthias Grünewald.

According to the New Testament, "God raised him [Jesus] from the dead",[20] he ascended to heaven, to the "right hand of God"[21], and will return again[22] to fulfil the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the Resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment and establishment of the Kingdom of God, see also Messianism and Messianic Age. The Gospel of Matthew states that an angel appeared near the tomb of Jesus and announced his resurrection to the women who had arrived to anoint the body. According to Luke it was two angels, and according to Mark it was a youth dressed in white. The sight of this angel had apparently left the Roman guards unconscious (Matt 28:2–4). (According to Matt, the high priests and Pharisees, with Pilate's permission, had posted guards in front of the tomb to prevent the body from being stolen by Jesus' disciples.) Mark states that on the morning of his resurrection, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene. John states that when Mary looked into the tomb, two angels asked her why she was crying; and as she turned round, she initially failed to recognise Jesus until he spoke her name.

The Acts of the Apostles tell that Jesus appeared to various people in various places over the next forty days. Hours after his resurrection, he appeared to two travellers on the road to Emmaus. To his assembled disciples, he showed himself on the evening after his resurrection. First Corinthians, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and some other ancient sources mention he appeared to his adelphos Jacob ("James" in most English Bibles). According to John, during one of these visits, Jesus' disciple Thomas initially doubted the resurrection, but after being invited to place his finger in Jesus' pierced side, said to him, "My Lord and my God!" Thereafter, Jesus went to Galilee and showed himself to several of his disciples by the lake and on the mountain. These disciples were present when he returned to Mount Olivet, between Bethany and Jerusalem. Although his own ministry had been specifically to the lost sheep of Israel,[23] Jesus sent his apostles to the Gentiles with the Great Commission and then ascended to heaven while a cloud concealed him from their sight.[24] According to Acts, Paul of Tarsus, who called himself the Apostle to the Gentiles, also saw Jesus during his Road to Damascus experience (Acts 9:1–19.). Jesus promises to come again to fulfill the remainder of Messianic prophecy.[25]


  1. Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 48.
  2. Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press (2004), page 39.
  3. 'Joseph', Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), page 735.
  4. Geza Vermes, The Nativity, Penguin Books (2006), page 143.
  5. Depends on which translation from Greek is used (Luke 2:1–7; "inn" may be "guest room", see Luke 22:11).
  6. For Egypt: Matt 2:13–23; For Tyre and sometimes Sidon:Matt 15:21–28 and Mark 7:24–30
  7. Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend, London, Penguin, 2006, p22
  8. E. P. Sanders describes them as "the clearest cases of invention in the Gospels". E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1993, p.85
  9. Luke 2:11; John 1:41; John 20:31
  10. Mark 1:1; John 20:31
  11. John 1:1, 1:18, 20:28
  12. Mark 10:45, Luke 4:43, John 20:31.
  13. (Luke 10:25–28; John 8:55).
  14. John 13:34, 15:10–14
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  16. Condemned: Matthew 23:13–28; Dined: Luke 7:36–50; Taught: Mark 1:21; Followers: Matthew 23:1–3; Nicodemus: John 7:50–51.
  17. Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." ' Luke 7:34 "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." ' Luke 7:33-35
  18. Exodus 30:11-16, Matthew 17:24-27, Jewish Encyclopedia Numismatics: "Therefore if the taxpayer could not manage to procure an old Phenician or Ptolemaic coin, he had to take change for his money; and this may have been the first occasion in which money-changers set up their booths in the precincts of the Temple."
  19. Matthew 26:48, translation note in The Complete Gospels, page 108: "The fact that Judas needs to use a sign indicates that Jesus was not known by face in Jerusalem."
  20. Acts 2:24, Romans 10:9, 1 Cor 15:15, Acts 2:31-32, 3:15, 3:26, 4:10, 5:30, 10:40-41, 13:30, 13:34, 13:37, 17:30-31, 1 Cor 6:14, 2 Cor 4:14, Gal 1:1, Eph 1:20, Col 2:12, 1 Thess 1:10, Heb 13:20, 1 Pet 1:3, 1:21
  21. Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33, 5:31, 7:55-56, Romans 8:34, Eph 1:20, Col 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, 1:13, 10:12, 12:2, 1 Peter 3:22
  22. Acts 1:9-11
  23. Matthew 15:24
  24. Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51Acts 1:6–11.
  25. Matthew 24:36–44