The Biblical Jesus

Central Teaching of Jesus

The central theme of Jesus’s teachings was the Kingdom of God. This was not a literal, earthly kingdom but a spiritual transformation wherein God’s love, justice, and mercy would reign over the hearts of individuals and ultimately society. Jesus emphasized the following principles:

  • Unconditional love: Jesus advocated for boundless love towards God, oneself, and even one’s enemies. This radical love was the foundation of a true relationship with God and the way to bring about his Kingdom.
  • Forgiveness: Jesus emphasized forgiveness both as a gift from God and as the responsibility of his followers. Forgiveness, he taught, breaks cycles of hatred and retribution. The sacraments of baptism and holy communion are specifically identified in the Gospels and Acts for Christians.
  • Humility and service: Jesus frequently overturned social norms by favoring the meek, the poor, and the marginalized. He exemplified a servant-leader, washing his disciples’ feet as a sign of humility and demonstrating that true greatness comes from serving others.
  • Inner transformation: Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God begins with a change of heart, not simply adherence to external laws. This involved cultivating virtues like compassion, honesty, and selflessness.

Jesus’s ministry and his challenging messages attracted the ire of the political and religious authorities of his day. He was eventually arrested, tried, and crucified by the Romans. Three days after his death, Jesus rose from the dead. This resurrection is central to Christianity and is understood as a victory over sin and death, offering the possibility of eternal life to those who believe in him.

Jewish and Christian Differences

Jesus’s message and its transmission differed from the ways the Jewish tradition experienced and shared revelation:

  • Person vs. Proposition: In traditional Judaism, revelation focuses primarily on divinely inspired laws and teachings (Torah). The revelation is a set of propositions and commandments. In contrast, Jesus was  the living embodiment of God’s message. His life, actions, and teaching were seen by his followers as the fulfillment and culmination of God’s revelation.
  • Universal vs. National: While Judaism sees God’s chosen people as the Jewish nation, formed through a covenant, Jesus presented a message that transcended ethnic and national boundaries. The Kingdom of God was offered to all, emphasizing a salvation open to both Jew and Gentile.
  • Oral Tradition vs. Written Law: Judaism emphasizes the written Torah and its interpretation through rabbinic tradition. While Jesus also engaged in the oral transmission of teachings through parables and sermons, the early Christian movement relied heavily on the oral witness of his disciples and the spread of his message before the emergence of written Gospels.
  • Missionary Zeal: Early Christians engaged in a vigorous missionary expansion that rapidly spread the message of Jesus beyond its Jewish origins. This evangelistic zeal, aimed at converting both Jews and Gentiles, was a significant break from Judaism’s emphasis on maintaining tradition within its own community.

Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher and healer from the region of Galilee, is indisputably one of the most influential figures in human history. His life, teachings, and eventual death spawned the faith known as Christianity, which now has adherents numbering in the billions worldwide. He was not only a teacher of ethical principles, but an evangelist. He passionately shared his message of the Kingdom of God, calling on people to repent, embrace radical love, and embody a life transformed by God’s grace.

Long before the appearance of a written account of his life and teachings, Jesus preached the “Good News” to crowds gathered on hillsides, by the seashore, and at religious festivals. He used parables, vivid stories designed to convey spiritual truths and challenge his listeners. Considered a Jewish rabbi, Jesus taught in synagogues, interpreting Old Testament scripture and debating religious matters with other teachers. He also interacted with individuals seeking healing, guidance, or theological discussion (John 4:7-42; John 5:1-15; Matthew 9:16-30; Mark 5:1-43). These personal encounters were often profound moments of transformation.

Jesus’s evangelism involved a core group of disciples who traveled with him, witnessing his teachings and miracles firsthand. These disciples were not mere passive listeners; they memorized key sayings, witnessed his prayer life, and modeled their own behavior after his example. Jesus empowered them with his authority to preach the Kingdom message, heal the sick, and cast out demons.

Jewish Revelation versus the Humanity of Jesus

Judaism focuses primarily on divinely inspired laws and teachings (Torah) delivered to Abraham and Moses in visions and Divine experience. Christianity is based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus related by witnesses. He was the living embodiment of God’s revelation. Jesus offered personal salvation to everyone while Jews expected a restoration of the Davidic Kingdom. Jesus presented a message that transcended ethnic and national boundaries. The Kingdom of God was offered to all, emphasizing a salvation open to both Jew and Gentile.

Jesus’s crucifixion was a stumbling block for many Jews. The idea of a Messiah dying a shameful death didn’t align with expectations of a victorious political leader. Christians believe his death was a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. His resurrection is validation of his messianic claims and a sign of God’s triumph over sin and death, leading to the promise of eternal life for believers. Judaism emphasizes the written Torah and its interpretation through rabbinic tradition. While Jesus also engaged in the oral transmission of teachings through parables and sermons, the early Christian movement trusted the oral witness of his disciples and the spread of his message before the emergence of written Gospels.

Oral Tradition: The Bedrock of the Gospels

In this period before written Gospels, the primary way Jesus’s message spread was through a vibrant oral tradition based on:

  • Memorization and Repetition: In cultures with strong oral traditions, sayings and stories were easily memorized. Jesus’s teachings were short, rhythmic, and often used vivid imagery, making them well-suited for memorization and transmission.
  • Community Preservation: Early Christian communities gathered regularly for worship, fellowship, and the sharing of Jesus’s teachings. His stories, parables, and key sayings were repeated and reflected on, embedding them in the collective memory of his followers.
  • Apostolic Authority: The apostles, as Jesus’s closest companions, had unique authority. They traveled widely, ensuring consistency in the transmission of Jesus’s message and settling theological disputes as they arose.