Historical Jesus' Life and Times

Jesus in Nazareth
Jesus was supposedly born in Bethlehem and then Mary and Joseph fled with Him to Egypt. Later they traveled back to live in Nazareth in Galilee where Jesus grew up. Israel was historically divided into Judea in the south, Samaria in the central area, and Galilee in the north. By far the mightiest force at the time shaping life in Galilee was the Roman Empire. The Romans had subjugated Palestine some 60 years before Jesus’ birth. The way the Roman Empire developed was to gradually take over more and more territories in the eastern Mediterranean. Some of these were governed as provinces, some as client kingdoms. Eventually they also conquered Judea which became one of these client kingdoms run by its own independent, or semi-independent, King, Herod the Great.

Rome was a kind of dominant political factor and almost all Jews chafed under Rome’s harsh and ruthless rule, not just for their idolatrous religion, but also their oppressive taxes and military control. In Judea, Herod's forces would have been the political entity, although everyone knew that Rome was the power behind the throne. Many scholars believe this social unrest set the stage for the Jewish born Jesus to come onto the scene, who later denounced the rich and powerful and pronounced blessings on the poor and marginalized.

Less than four miles from the small village of Nazareth (pop. 200-400) is one of Herod Antipas’ capitol cities in the Galilee, Sepphoris. Sepphoris was a major Roman and Byzantine city, the capital and heart of the Galilee province. This city boasted a population of 30,000 and was a center for culture and art in the Galilee. According to Titus Flavius Josephus, a first-century Romano-Jewish scholar, Sepphoris was “the ornament of all Galilee". It is known today for its beautiful mosaics and a Roman theater.

Although scripture does not mention Sepphoris by name, its proximity to Nazareth, approximately an an hour's walk between the cities, means it may have played a part in Jesus' youth. After 3 B.C., Sepphoris was the center of a building boom, providing work opportunities for artisans such as Joseph, and Jesus may have worked with his father there. Sepphoris is set on a Galilee hilltop and is very visible from the ridges of Nazareth overlooking the Tiran and Bet Netofa Valleys.

Luke states that Joseph and Mary made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every Passover. Most of the time travel to the Passover or other Feasts in Jerusalem was done as a family group or town group. Often as one group merged with other groups on the main road the numbers would increase significantly. When Jesus was 12 years old He went with his family to the feast in Jerusalem according to Luke 2:41-52. After the feast Mary and Joseph traveled for a day before they realized Jesus was missing. They thought He was traveling with other family members or group. It was three more days before they found Jesus back in Jerusalem still in the Temple.

The Bible says nothing more about Jesus after the 12-year-old Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem until He starts his ministry at around thirty years of age. Some theories suggest that He may have traveled during this time, accounting for his knowledge of foreign cultures, languages and political structures. He also would have had exposure to a diversity of foreigners from across the Roman world in Sepphoris, as well as the opportunity to learn to speak and read the three languages: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. From the archaeological evidence unearthed from cities such as Sepphoris that were connected to the international transport routes, scholars now believe that during Jesus’ life it is probable that He would have been in contact with the broader world.

Jesus Starts His Ministry
When Jesus was about thirty years old, He went the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist and, according to Matthew 3:13-17, He underwent a life-changing experience. Rising from the water, He saw the Spirit of God descend on him “like a dove” and heard the voice of God proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The heavenly experience launched Jesus on a preaching and healing mission that began in Galilee and ended, three years later, with his execution in Jerusalem.

We know from Scripture that Jesus visited parts of Jordan right after his baptism but not before He entered into the wilderness to fast and pray. To the ancient Jews this wilderness was known as the “parched land” or “waste land” and they called it by the name YeShimon which means “Place of Desolation.” It was rightly named because in consisted of jagged ridges and narrow canyons where the epic battle was between Jesus and Satan. The wilderness is basically the Judaean Desert and is located from just east of Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea and extended southward to the Negev Desert.

When Jesus emerges from the wilderness after his trial of temptation, Matthew 4:12-16 states that Jesus went to live in the Capernaum region, near the Jordan River on “the Way to the Sea.” This ancient land route is called the Via Maris, connecting eastward to Damascus and serving as one of the major thoroughfares through first century Palestine between the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. The Via Maris connected the silk and incense routes that extended to Iran and China to the ports on the Mediterranean coast of western Asia. Jesus would have spent most of his life in close proximity to the international trade route, which would offer him insight into people with a diversity of ethnic and religious groups He might have met. It was from his home at Capernaum that Jesus called the first of the twelve apostles - fishermen of the Sea of Galilee.

At the time of Jesus' life the Roman Empire had expanded throughout the Mediterranean region. There was a network of land and sea routes used for transportation and communication. The Romans built over 53,000 miles of paved roads. Roman roads were used by traders, builders, soldiers and government officials and greatly contributed to the growth of the empire. Since Jesus and his followers were not wealthy the normal means of transportation was walking. When Jesus journeyed around Nazareth and the surrounding villages in Galilee He was following beaten dirt tracks, not the Roman paved roads which were mainly used by caravans and those with horses or camels. His travels took him to the countries and towns surrounding Jerusalem, including Samaria, Jordan, Perea and back to Caperneum. 

Matthew 9:35 states that Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. Walking between the towns literally meant that Jesus and His followers would have spent much of their time walking through fields and valleys, up mountains and cliffs and relying on others for their sustenance. The Book of Acts recorded Peter walking 40 miles from Joppa to Caesarea in two days, so the average travel was twenty miles a day. Most places Jesus and His disciples traveled to averaged from fifty to a hundred miles round trip, some quite a bit more.

When Jesus went to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth the people there could not accept His words, although at first they were curious about the miracles He supposedly performed. Jesus said to them that no prophet is accepted in his own town. The people held the view that Jesus was just a son of the carpenter and the more He tried to point out what they were doing the more angry they became until they drove Him out of the city. Thus He could perform no miracles in Nazareth.

This is a defining moment in Jesus' ministry. He is stating to Nazareth people that the time of fulfillment has come, and indirectly asks them will you reject me as in the past the people rejected Elijah and the prophet Elisha so that they only could heal a few? And they did reject him. Jesus is calling out people who have an ear to hear. He is separating the tares from the wheat.

Just as Jesus had done at Nazareth, He attended Sabbath services at Capernaum where He taught and did miracles. He cast out a demon from a man just through commanding the demon to leave and the people wondered at who was this man who could cast out demons with just a word.

What attracts many followers to Jesus initially is his healing and miracles. Yet that is not Jesus' most important mission. It is to preach the truth and help people return to God. When Simon and the other disciples found Jesus, who had gone off alone to pray, they encouraged Him to go to the many people who were waiting for healing from Jesus, but Jesus did not decide to stay in Capernaum and continue healing people. He instead said that it was time for Him to preach in other Galilean towns, for His reason for coming was to preach (Mark 1:36–38). The same story is told in Luke 4:42-44, but Luke says that the people wanting healing found Him in the desert, which means He went alone to pray. After they entreated Him to help them He told them "I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore am I sent."

Jesus continues preaching around Galilee. His fame began spreading throughout the region because of his teachings and claim that he is directed by God to minister and preach. Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of  prophecy as stated in  Isaiah 61:1-2. This is a phenomenal time for the people, to be in the presence of one who states he is the fulfillment of the prophecies. While some were very open to what they heard and saw, the more rigid Jews were not. The historical reality was that Jesus and his family were faithful observants of Torah. Jesus lived his life as as a Jew, obedient (with very few exceptions) to Torah. He and his family kept the Sabbath, attended synagogue, paid tithes, and observed Jewish laws. His followers were Jews.

The exceptions were such things as healing a man from palsy on the Sabbath in front of the Pharisees. Several other occasions the Gospels tell of Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Then another time Jesus' disciples picked some grain and ate it on the Sabbath. Again the Pharisees challenged Jesus about doing unlawful things on the Sabbath. Jesus responded with an example and ended with, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5), thereby indirectly stating He was the Lord. Jesus is in reality teaching that no time is more appropriate than the Sabbath for such healings.

Jesus does not attempt to separate Himself from Judaism despite these challenges, rather, He presents His mission as the fulfillment and realization of Israel's hope. Jesus is sending a message not only to the Pharisees who expect complete obedience to the laws, but to the people that God is the maker of the laws and Jesus is there to show the people where they have gone astray from the true meaning of the laws. So we see that it is the poor who respond to God's message and embrace it with humility. They have no delusions of power, control and independence. They are what the Old Testament called "the pious poor," or "the afflicted". These people are not just physically poor, they are spiritually sensitive.

Most New Testament readers know the verses on the rich man where Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24). Jesus was pointing out this because the rich tend to rely on their assets to provide their needs, not God. Compare this with the poor. When they are in need the first thing the pious poor will do is to pray to God for help. For these people Jesus has a message of good news. He was telling of a new future and the kingdom of God, and in the here and now He was bringing much needed relief from the misery of demonic oppression and from the forces that stand opposed to humanity that pull them down into sin and pain.

Preaching the truth about the kingdom of God and how one may receive it by trusting only in Christ formed the bulk of Jesus' message, but in that message was His coming “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1–10). In the preceding chapter Jesus heals a blind man and the crowd around Him praise God, but then when Jesus is going through Jericho He meets Zacchaeus, a rich man and tax collector. Jesus asks to stay at his house and the people object to Jesus' association with the sinner. Jesus was showing that even a sinner, and rich man, can be forgiven. Zacchaeus was going to make right his sins by giving half of his money to the poor and pay back anything he had unlawfully taken from anyone fourfold.

So salvation comes bringing forgiveness of sins not based on works but on faith. Jesus told the blind man that his faith had saved him, and Jesus said that salvation had come unto the house of Zacchaeus. Jesus was showing humanity that sin separates us from God, causes diseases, infirmities and possessions, that Satan and the devil are a reality in this world and we need God's intercession because we succumb to sins through the temptations of Satan and by our own ignorance and lack of moral character. Ultimately, we lack divine love and become mired in sin from the lack of that love and the turning toward selfishness and then seeing ourselves separate from God and others.

Freedom is one of God’s great blessings to man, and sin entered into the world when man abused his privilege of freedom. The story begins with Adam, and humankind have suffered from their sins since. God is not to blame if mankind have chosen to use their free will to sin. Yet God has not forsaken us. He has brought forth the prophets and the Word to guide us. Then came Jesus, the fulfillment of the Word. "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt 20:28).

We can find the real Jesus in the Scriptures. Many interpretations of Jesus' words are available, as has been since His fulfillment of his life and death, resurrection and ascension. Many disparage the Bible because it was written by many men, and rewritten by scribes. Many have turned from faith and religion and become agnostics and atheists and attempt to convert others to their path. How we relate to Jesus' life and real mission is up to each one. Jesus attempted in His life to help the blind see and the deaf to hear, but not all could see or hear the truth and internalize the Word.

Those who continue to believe and teach and preach may not all be converts to the truth. Many can be the wolves in sheep's clothing come to spoil the truth of Christ and the real Jesus that was and is the Christ. Many are possessed with evil forces who appear as normal human beings but behind their acts evil drives them to muddy the waters and distort God Reality. Each one of us are responsible for finding the real Jesus and His message, and to pray for others and ourselves that the real Jesus will give us the truth in our hearts.