Who is Jesus?
By Norton Herbst
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
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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…