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Who was Jesus? Two thousand years after His death, what do we know about the source of the world's most dominant religion?

Of all the people to ever walk the earth, few, if any, have had a greater influence than Jesus Christ. Out of His teachings grew Christianity, the most dominant religion in the world. Today, more than one third of the people on the planet are Christians. More good deeds have been done in His name--and wars fought as well--than in anyone else's. Who was this Man, whom Christians call the son of God?

Historians agree on a few things. First, Jesus was a Jew. He grew up in a section of Roman-controlled Judea called Galilee. Early Christians divided historic time into two parts: before Christ, or B.C., and after, or A.D. (A.D. is short for Anno Domini, Latin for "the year of the Lord.") But modern historians believe that Jesus was actually born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C.

Jesus was also a peasant. According to most translations of the Christian Bible, called the New Testament, He was a carpenter. However, some scholars translate the original Greek as "hand worker." (The New Testament was originally written in Greek, then the language of educated people.) This may mean that Jesus was a day laborer who found whatever work he could, repairing houses, hauling stone, fixing tools, or working in the fields. Probably, He had a dark Mediterranean complexion, made darker by working long hours in the sun.

Western tradition often imagines Galilee as a peaceful place where Jesus spent a happy childhood. In fact, we know next to nothing about Jesus' childhood. We do know that when Jesus was a boy, Judea was in the midst of political and social turmoil. This upheaval had a profound effect on His teachings.

Life in Galilee

Jesus was raised in the tiny village of Nazareth. It was Far from the center of activity in Jerusalem, the Jewish holy city. But within a few hours' walk of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris (SEF-or-us), the capital of Galilee. Since the 1980s, archaeologists working at the site of Sepphoris have uncovered evidence of a bustling metropolis. Some historians believe that in Sepphoris, Jesus would have been exposed to Greek and Roman thought and to all the controversies of the day.

To begin with, Palestine was an occupied territory--occupied by the Romans. In Sepphoris, Jesus would have seen one of the most hated symbols of Roman oppression, the tax collector. "The Roman empire existed to tax," New Testament professor Stephen Patterson told the National Geographic (TV) Channel. "Their purpose was to extract as much wealth as they could from [a] place without actually killing it off."

There were also deep strains among Jews evident in the Galilean city. The strict fundamentalist Pharisee sect argued bitterly with the priestly class of Sadducees (SAD-yoo-sees) over the interpretation of religious laws. The Sadducees cooperated with the Romans to preserve their own influence. A group called the Zealots, or "dagger men," performed acts of terrorism against Romans and their allies.

Meanwhile, the poor suffered. Jesus, who was poor himself, would have observed all of this. His experiences helped shape His message of love and justice.

What Do Christians Believe?

Christians the world over hold a wide range of beliefs about Jesus and His mission. Perhaps their most important common belief is that Jesus was the Messiah mentioned in Hebrew writings. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David who would restore the ancient kingdom of Israel. The word Christ, in fact, comes from a Greek translation of messiah. It was originally a title given to Jesus, not part of His name.

What Jesus claimed was something unexpected to people who heard Him. "The kingdom is in the midst of you," He is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Luke. Some translations say "inside of you." In many parables from the Gospels, Jesus painted the picture of a spiritual kingdom. It was a way of living rather than an earthly power.

Other teachings were just as surprising. "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you," He said in the famous Sermon on the Mount. Over and over, Jesus spoke of the power of humility and the need to do right by others. Even many people who do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah acknowledge the wisdom in His teachings.

The Spread of Christianity

In terms of written history, Jesus is mentioned only briefly in a few Roman and Jewish sources. Almost everything we know about Him comes from the four New Testament Gospels credited to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were 2 of the 12 apostles, Jesus' chief followers during his lifetime. Luke and Mark are thought to have become followers after Jesus' death.

Taken together, the four accounts tell the story: Jesus gathered a small group of believers and traveled across the countryside preaching and healing. The Jewish authorities, angered by Jesus' teachings, accused Him of heresy. In about 30 A.D., while Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Jewish celebration of the Passover, the authorities pressed the Romans to kill Him. The Romans, tired of the whole business, simply crucified Jesus as a troublemaker.

The Gospels also say that Jesus was resurrected (rose from the dead), an event that Christians celebrate at Easter. The Crucifixion and Resurrection symbolize important Christian beliefs that Jesus died for the sins of the world and to create a heavenly life after death.

But Christians disagree about many points. They argue over what Jesus meant--and even over what He said. Scholars think the oldest Gospel, of Mark, was not written until about 60 A.D., long after many eyewitnesses were dead. They believe that the books of Matthew and Luke were in part based on Mark's, and in part on another Gospel that has been lost.

Through the centuries, differences among believers worldwide have been magnified by wars and clashes of cultures. Today, more than 22,000 separate groups call themselves Christian.

What is indisputable is the power of Jesus' message. Although the Romans at first persecuted Christians, Emperor Constantine later embraced Christianity, in 313 A.D. Thereafter, the message spread with the Roman Empire. That is the beginning of another story, and one that continues to this day.

Words to Know

* apostle: one sent on a mission; followers of Jesus.

* fundamentalist: believing in strict interpretations of religious writings.

* Gospel: Greek for"good story" or "good news"; the hooks that tell the story of Jesus.

* heresy: false or evil teaching.

* Messiah: Hebrew for "anointed one," which Christians believe Jesus to have been.

* parable: a short story with a moral.

* persecute: to continually treat in a cruel or unjust way.

Christian Sects

Who is a Christian?

The term Christian covers an enormous range of believers around the world. Here are just the three major categories.

Roman Catholic

The Church of Rome. When Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in the 4th century, the institution of the Church grew with the Roman Empire. Catholics still look to Rome and the Church's leader, the Pope. The largest established religion, it is embraced by nearly one fifth of all people.


Also called Eastern or Greek Orthodox. Originally based in Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey), Orthodox leaders split from Rome in 1054. Their differences were political and cultural as much as religious. The Church spread through Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, developing into many national versions, such as the Coptic Church of Egypt.


Protestantism developed in 16th-century Europe through a movement called the Reformation. Leaders such as Martin Luther split with Rome, preaching a return to practices of the original Christians. Today, Protestant groups include Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, and many independent Evangelical churches, especially in the U.S.

Under the Rubble: the Oldest Church?

A prisoner in the northern Israeli town of Megiddo recently came upon an important fragment of Christian history. While removing rubble from the grounds of a prison ward, the inmate uncovered portions of a mosaic depicting fish (see photo), a symbol used by early Christians. Historians think the mosaic may be part of the oldest archaeological remains of a church in the Holy Land, i dating from about the 3rd century A.D. If SO, the remains could provide clues about the history of early Christians.


Students should understand

* who Jesus Christ was, historically.

* what the roots of Christianity were.


anoint: literally, to apply oil to a person as a sacred rite; done to kings and priests of ancient Israel.


The only significant historical source outside the New Testament we have for Jesus' life is from Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian born around 37 A.D. Josephus's own story is fascinating: A Pharisee, he was the military commander of Galilee who defended vainly against Roman attack during the Jewish uprising of 67 A.D., and then became a Roman collaborator, in his book The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus made two brief references to Jesus. The longer one acknowledged Jesus' life, his teaching, the circumstances of the Crucifixion, and reports of the Resurrection. Scholars believe that parts of this were later tampered with by Christians. We have no evidence to suggest Josephus ever became a Christian.


RECALLING DETAILS: Almost everything we know about Jesus comes from what? (New Testament Gospels credited to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

COMPREHENSION: The fundamentalist Pharisees of Jesus' time bitterly opposed the Sadducees, who were what? (a priestly class)


MAKING COMPARISONS: Have students do general research on the basics of Judaism and Islam, and compare and contrast them with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Then discuss: What concepts do the three have in common? Where do they differ?



* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How Christianity, the dominant religion in the world today, began.

* Culture: How beliefs influence human behavior.



* Wilkinson, Philip, Christianity (DK Publishing, 2003). Grades 5-8.

* Ries, Julien, The First Centuries of Christianity (Chelsea House, 2001). Grades 6-12.


* History for Kids: Christianity

* National Geographic's Science of the Bible

Your Turn

1. apostle A. a story with a message

2. gospel B. what Christians believe
 Jesus to have been

3. heresy C. one who followed Jesus

4. Messiah D. good story or good news

5. parable E. false or evil teaching

1. C

2. D

3. E

4. B

5. A


1. What message did Jesus preach to His followers?

2. Why do you think Jesus' teachings are still with us today?

* Write the letter of the correct answer on the line before each question.

-- 16. Jesus was born to which faith?

A. Christianity

B. Islam

C. Judaism

17. Jesus grew up in which Roman-controlled part of Judea?

A. Galilee

B. Samaria

C. Gaza

-- 18. Which of these are New Testament books known as the Gospels?

A. John, Paul, and Benedict

B. Mark, Luke, Thomas, and Paul

C. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

-- 19. Which of these was one of the most hated figures in Roman-occupied Judea?

A. day laborer

B. tax collector

C. warrior

-- 20. Jesus often expressed his teachings in the form of what?

A. booklets

B. parables

C. riddles

16. C

17. A

18. C

19. B

20. B

1. True or False? The story of Jesus is told in the Old Testament. (false; New Testament)

2. In the time of Jesus, Judea was an area occupied by which empire? (Roman)

3. The Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are known as what? (the Gospels)

4. The word Christ comes from a Greek translation of a word meaning what? (Messiah)

5. What does A.D. stand for and what do the words mean? (Anne Domini; "year of the Lord")

6. Name the city that was Galilee's capital in Jesus' time. (Sepphoris)
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Author:Brown, Bryan
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Dec 12, 2005
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