Winter 2000

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 1

Humble Beginnings

David Hulme

Feared by a king and sought by wise men, the young Jesus was already having an impact—just through news of His birth. 

What was it about Jesus Christ that attracted great crowds to listen to Him? Was it the miracles, the fascinating parables in everyday language, or the force of his moral teaching? Was it the perceived possibility of the overthrow of Roman rule, or His searing critique of religious corruption? Was it all, some or none of these reasons?

And why, ultimately, did the religious leadership of the day determine to end the work of the man from Galilee?

With this first in a series of articles, we begin a fascinating journey through the life and times of Jesus Christ—a journey that will at times surprise you and probably change your perceptions of original Christianity.

For centuries many scholars and teachers have misunderstood and led others to misunderstand the practice of early Christians. How did the earliest followers of Jesus practice the faith He delivered? How should Christians today follow their leader?

Galilee of the Strangers

As we begin our journey, let’s get our geographic bearings. Jesus grew up in Galilee, a territory to the north of Judea. It was located at the intersection of trade routes linking the eastern Mediterranean Sea coast with Damascus in Syria and the lands beyond. Its name in the Aramaic language of Jesus’ time was Galil hagoim—Galilee of the strangers—because along its network of roads passed all manner of peoples. These were the surroundings of Jesus’ youth, the places where His father, Joseph, worked as a carpenter.

Near Nazareth was the regional capital city of Sepphoris. Among its ruins today are the remains of a much later fort built around 1260 by the Crusaders. It stands at the top of a hill that dominates the countryside—a now-silent reminder that centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, other strangers continued to crisscross Galilee’s productive landscape. The Crusaders were drawn not by trade but by religious fervor—Christians seeking to win back their lost holy places from the followers of Mohammed.

What would the man from Nazareth have made of all the bloodshed they committed in His name? Did His message of a coming peaceful kingdom have anything to do with a vicious struggle over holy places? We could ask the same questions today. Religious conflicts have not gone away, and the holy places are still a bone of contention. Surely the principles underlying the Christian faith cry out against such strife.

Disappointed Visitors

American author Mark Twain echoed similar thoughts back in 1869. He visited Bethlehem, the place of Christ’s birth, and later wrote, “The priests and the members of the Greek and Latin churches cannot come by the same corridor to kneel in the sacred birthplace of the Redeemer, but are compelled to approach and retire by different avenues, lest they quarrel and fight on this holiest ground on earth” (The Innocents Abroad).

It seems that even those who venerate the places Christ may have been, fight among themselves over those places.

Twain was disappointed by his dusty three-month horseback journey through Syria and Palestine—especially by the many holy places. He complained that they were often tawdry and commercialized.

Mark Twain was disappointed by his dusty three-month horseback journey through Syria and Palestine—especially by the many holy places. He complained that they were often tawdry and commercialized.

Yet in Galilee, he found some serenity. One night, sitting outside his tent on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he marveled at the region’s history and associations. “In the starlight,” he wrote, “Galilee has no boundaries but the broad compass of the heavens, and is a theater meet for great events; meet for the birth of a religion able to save the world; and meet for the stately Figure appointed to stand upon its stage and proclaim its high decrees.”

In the early 1940s, a young British aircraft engineer stationed in Egypt also visited the Holy Land. When he saw the various holy places, he felt a little as Mark Twain had. He was certainly discouraged by the tasteless “sacred” grottos with their trappings of religiosity. He even asked himself whether some of the celebrated Christian sites were really connected with the life and times of the humble man from Nazareth. That young Royal Air Force man was my father. His fascination with the land—and the implications for Western civilization of what happened there—has become my own.

What did the earliest teachers of Christianity have to tell their world? How much of original Christianity still exists? Has Jesus’ teaching enjoyed accurate transmission across the years? Or is the Christianity we know today in part accumulated misconception?

Judeo-Christian Roots

A hundred and fifty years ago, Danish philosopher Soren Kierke-gaard wrote, “Millions of people through the centuries have little by little cheated God out of Christianity.” It’s a shocking assertion. More recently, the French writer Jacques Ellul said it differently. He wrote, “We have to admit that there is an immeasurable distance between all that we read in the Bible and the practice of Christians.” If these men were correct—if, as Kierkegaard also said, the “Christianity of the New Testament simply does not exist”—then perhaps it’s time to go back and rediscover the authentic faith.

And that’s what this series is all about. It’s about the earliest Christians, their leader, their practices and their travels. And it’s about how we connect with this aspect of our Western heritage.

It’s common knowledge that Western civilization has its roots in the Greek and Roman worlds. We can see it in our legal systems, our communications, commerce and science, our forms of government, as well as our art and literature. But overlaying that foundation is another powerful influence, and that’s the Judeo-Christian value system found in the Bible, the familiar Book of books. Its principles have guided monarchs, statesmen and ordinary people through the ages.

When Alfred the Great, for example, set down his code of law for the English peoples, he attached a paraphrased translation of the Ten Commandments and abridged passages from a couple of chapters in the book of Exodus—the ones that spell out practical applications of the Ten Commandments. Centuries later on the American continent, the founding fathers of the United States formulated their constitution, guided by that same enduring Judeo-Christian heritage. So part of our Western cultural foundation can be traced to a narrow land at the crossroads of the ancient world.

In the late 20s A.D. Jesus announced His mission to the people in His hometown of Nazareth. Taking up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the small synagogue, he read: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

The Gospel writer Luke tells us that at first the townspeople were impressed by the words that came from His lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. But before long, Jesus’ teaching angered them, especially when He began to explain that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” He reminded His listeners of ancient Israel’s rejection of its prophets—men of God—who came with unpopular messages. They warned their societies of the need to radically change behavior and live according to God’s laws. When Jesus made such pointed statements, His audience was infuriated perhaps as much as their Old Testament forebears had been.

The result of His speech in Nazareth was that the audience took Him to a cliff overlooking the town. They intended to throw Him over the edge and kill Him. And would we not do the same today? The notion of killing the messenger when we do not like the message is not unfamiliar. On this occasion, although it was a close call, Jesus survived. Luke’s account simply tells us that Jesus “walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”

This early incident in Jesus’ ministry reflects the tension He often generated. On the one hand, gracious speech; on the other, uncompromising moral logic that cornered His listeners.

This early incident in Jesus’ ministry reflects the tension He often generated. On the one hand, gracious speech; on the other, uncompromising moral logic that cornered His listeners.

From Conception to Misconception

Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was a very small place at that time. But the village was not His birthplace, of course. That distinction is reserved for Bethlehem, about 90 miles to the south in ancient Judah. It was there that Jesus’ parents had their roots.

Every year at the Christmas season, the town of Bethlehem is filled with pilgrims acknowledging what they believe was the time and place of their Savior’s birth. But does the traditional Christmas story reflect what the Bible says? You might be surprised.

Two thousand years ago, the Mediterranean basin was a Roman-dominated world. Just before Jesus was born, the emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree calling for a census. Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, were required to go to their ancestral home, Bethlehem, to register and be counted. The date was between 6 and 4 B.C. How do we know this? The Gospel of Luke gives us a major clue. The census, he says, took place while a certain Roman official was in power in the province of Syria, of which Palestine was a part.

Luke writes: “(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register” (Luke 2:2–3). The language suggests that more than one census occurred under Quirinius. So while some scholars argue that there were two rulers named Quirinius, it could be that the same man was in power twice, from 6 to 4 B.C. and again from A.D. 6 to 9. Since we’re told this was Quirinius’s first census, this is one way that Jesus’ birth can be dated between 6 and 4 B.C.

But where did the idea come from to divide time into “B.C.,” before Christ, and “A.D.,” anno Domini (“in the year of our Lord”)? Surprisingly, it wasn’t until A.D. 526 that a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus, living in Rome, came up with this method of Christian dating. And it was not until a thousand years later that B.C. came into use. Gradually the now common misconception took hold that Christ was born at the division of the years between “B.C.” and “A.D.” But the few historical benchmarks given in the New Testament give no support to such a conclusion.

Another misconception concerns not the year but the day of Christ’s birth. It is now known that December 25 could not have been the date. More likely, Jesus was born in the early autumn. We can establish this general period from specific details in the Gospel of Luke.

We can establish by simple arithmetic that John was born in the springtime in Palestine, and that Jesus was therefore born in the autumn. 

The temple at Jerusalem had well-defined priestly serving cycles. John the Baptist’s father was one of those serving in Jerusalem from time to time. He was designated to serve in the course or cycle named after Abijah, head of one of the priestly families in the days of King David. The timing of the Abijah course was around July-August. The Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist was conceived just after one such visit to Jerusalem. And we also know from Luke that John was about six months older than Jesus. We can establish by simple arithmetic that John was born in the springtime in Palestine, and that Jesus was therefore born in the autumn.

As we continue, we’ll discover many more popular misconceptions in the story of early Christianity.

A Humble Birth

Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, must have had a difficult time getting to Bethlehem. The journey would have taken three to five days. To get there, they probably took the usual route—from Nazareth down the Jordan valley to Jericho. From there they would climb the almost 4,000 feet to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

As the young parents-to-be traveled along the network of trade routes and regional roads, they no doubt spoke of all that had brought them to this moment. Mary was pregnant, though still a virgin. How could that be? Luke tells of an angelic vision revealing to Mary that the child she would bear would be the Messiah, the One long awaited by the Jewish people.

Joseph’s first thought had been to break their betrothal agreement in a form of private divorce, avoiding the shame and embarrassment Mary would experience otherwise. For more information, we have to turn to another of the four Gospel writers, Matthew. He tells us that Joseph “was a righteous man and did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace” (Matthew 1:19). Joseph soon understood from an inspired dream that he should continue with the marriage. The child, he now knew, was conceived by God’s intervention.

It was all very difficult to understand, but Joseph’s strong belief in the divine message motivated him to complete the marriage agreement. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures had foretold that a virgin would conceive a son named Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” Joseph and Mary were sufficiently convinced by their unusual experiences to believe that God was involved.

Let’s now look at some of the circumstances and the myths surrounding the birth of Christ.

When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem—birthplace of Israel’s most famous king, David—they found that the Roman census had brought many people home. That meant rooms were scarce as people came back to their birthplaces in Jerusalem and its surroundings. Luke says that when Joseph and Mary arrived, “there was no room for them in the inn.”

As it turned out, the circumstances gave Jesus’ birth a significant humility. This King of kings and Lord of lords would be born in a stable, which, according to numerous scholars and commentators, could have been a cave in one of Bethlehem’s hillsides.

The birth of Mary’s firstborn son attracted the immediate attention of humble shepherds who had also heard and seen angelic beings—this time announcing the extraordinary birth. In the fields near Bethlehem, the shepherds were watching over their flocks. This is a clue that Jesus’ birth was not in the middle of winter, when shepherds and flocks do not stay out at night. It does snow in Bethlehem in winter.

The angel told the shepherds that the Christos, or Messiah, the long-awaited Savior of mankind, had come. The sign the shepherds should look for was a baby lying in an animals’ feeding trough—a manger. In or near the village they found the child and His parents exactly as mentioned. The shepherds’ astonishment at the accuracy of the angelic message was so overwhelming that they became the first humans to announce Jesus’ birth.

It was a world looking for a Messiah; in fact, messianic expectation was commonplace. Some of the Jews wanted liberation from their Roman oppressors—their Messiah would be a political leader. Others wanted deliverance from disease and every human woe.

And it was not only in Israel that a Savior was anticipated.

Long-Predicted Holy One

About 40 years before the birth of Jesus, the Latin poet Virgil wrote that “a God-like child shall be born. . . . Come quickly to receive your power,” he said, “for all the world awaits you. Oh that I may live to see so noble a subject for my verse.”

The prediction of such a child was an ancient tradition, even in China, where in the early 500s B.C. the philosopher Confucius wrote that “the Holy One must be sought in the West.”

As a result, some histories mention that about 70 years after Jesus’ birth the Chinese emperor Mimti, under the influence of this ancient expectation, sent messengers westward into India to enquire after this long-predicted “Holy One” of Confucius.

A ruler in India had also understood that the birth of this unusual child was to occur. In about A.D. 1, this ruler had sent emissaries to Palestine to know whether the predicted royal child had actually made his appearance.

But a child born in a stable did not seem to fit the messianic expectation at all. And yet those mysterious visitors referred to in Matthew’s Gospel account, the Magi or wise men, had a different opinion.

Matthew tells us that some time after Jesus’ birth, “wise men” came from the east in pursuit of a star. They inquired about “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” In the details of this story we begin to see more of the misconceptions that have arisen around Christianity’s origins.

Tradition tells us there were three wise men, even three kings. But apparently the “three kings” theme didn’t become popular till the Middle Ages.

Notice that the New Testament record says nothing about how many wise men came. Tradition tells us there were three wise men, even three kings. But apparently the “three kings” theme didn’t become popular till the Middle Ages. The New Testament record is silent about the Magi as kings.

Tradition further misleads us, saying the Magi visited Jesus at His manger. Even the second-century church historian Justin Martyr was at variance with the biblical account with respect to the Magi. He wrote: “When the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found him.”

Yet notice the words of Matthew’s Gospel about the wise men: “The star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary” (Matthew 2:9–11). These visitors came to see a child in a house, not a newborn in a stable.

The King Escapes

As astrologers or philosophers, the Magi were likely aware of the messianic expectations of the age. When their observations of the night sky recorded an unusual star, they journeyed west following its uncharacteristic movements.

Their travels took them first to Jerusalem, since the one they were seeking was to be a new king of the Jews. Because of their questions, they gained an audience with the elderly and paranoid Herod in his palace. Despite his great public works and the loyalty they engendered, Herod was clearly disturbed by the threat of a rival king. Calling for the Jewish religious leaders, he asked where the Messiah was to be born. “‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written’” (verse 5).

The deceitful Herod then sent the Magi to find the child and return with a report so that he might also worship Him. However, the men were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and they returned home by another way. Herod’s anger knew no bounds when he discovered the Magi’s surreptitious departure. Using the information they had given him about the star’s first appearance, he ordered the brutal killing of all boys aged two and younger.

Another message came to Joseph and Mary; this time they were told to flee from Herod’s wrath. They immediately took their young son and escaped to Egypt by night. Nothing is known of their refuge in Egypt—neither place nor exact length of time—except that they returned to Nazareth after Herod’s death.

These early years of Jesus’ life yield some interesting misconceptions about Him. We’ll begin Part Two in the next issue with His adolescent years as He prepared for His great mission.