Our Historical Jesus - Supporting Arguments

4. Support for Our Historical Jesus

Section 3 was just a list of what we believe to be most likely true about the historical Jesus.  Here we repeat each item on the list and add supporting Bible references and supplementary information.

4.1       Beginnings

 Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person. He was likely born ca 6 to 4 BCE, during the last years of the reign of Herod The Great.

Luke’s birth story (Lk 2.1-7) says the birth happened at Bethlehem, during the first registration called by Emperor Augustus, “taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  The Bible footnote to Lk 2.2 says “According to Josephus, Quirinius becme governor of Syria (a Roman province that included Galilee and Judea) only in 6 CE.  Thus, the dates of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke appear to differ by at least ten years (4 BCE or earlier vs 6 CE or later).  The Zondervan Bible dictionary, however, has suggested that Quirinius, when not yet governor of Syria, may nevertheless have supervised a census that should have occurred in 8 BCE, but may have been delayed to 6 BCE. [ZIBD, Quirinius, 1200]

It was a natural birth, and likely not at Bethlehem.

The many reasons for not believing the virgin birth stories of Matthew and Luke are presented in Section 6.1.

The report that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem is “regarded as historically suspect, because Christians would have wanted people to believe this about Jesus – a birth in Bethlehem would help to boost his credentials as the Jewish Messiah, who was expected to be born there (see Matt.2:4-6; cf. Mic. 5:2).” [Bdict, Jesus Christ, 465]

The ‘wise’ men (actually astrologers), representing the minority upper classes, and the shepherds,  representing the majority working class, are literary devices to show Jesus was worshiped by all social classes.

Jesus was named the Hebrew Yesua; this was a common name.

Start with the transliterated Hebrew for Joshua:  yehosua ; shorten to yesua ; change to the Greek Iesous; (remember the I is a J – there was no J in the Hebrew, Greek or early Latin alphabets); and change to Latin, getting Iesus (Jesus). [Bency, 449].   Craig Evans states that four of the 28 Israeli high priests appointed between 37 BCE and 70 CE were named Jesus.  Other popular names were Joseph (4), Matthias (3) and Simon (3)
[CE1, 101].

He grew up at Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. Growing up, he likely learned the trade of carpentry (or construction) from his father Joseph.

Mt 13.55 says Jesus was ‘the carpenter’s son’; Mk 6.3 says that Jesus was a ‘carpenter.’   The Bible footnote to Mk 6.3 and [ZIBD, carpenter, 1037] both say that the Greek word tekton which has been translated as ‘carpenter’ can also be applied to various construction occupations, and it is likely that Joseph and Jesus were in the construction business, possibly including carpentry, masonry and similar activities.

We are told nothing about his height, appearance, voice, schooling, and whether or not he was married. There is no physical or archaeological evidence for Jesus. There is no record of any writings by Jesus. He had four named ‘brothers’ and at least two unnamed ‘sisters’.

We do not know if they were half brothers (i.e. sons of Joseph from a previous marriage), or full brothers, born of Mary after Jesus was her first born.  Mt 13.55 lists the four brothers as James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas.  Mk 6.3  lists the same four brothers, but calls the second one Joses instead of Joseph.  His sisters are never named in the NT.

At age twelve, after a Passover festival in Jerusalem, he stayed behind three days, conversing with the temple priests.

Lk 2.41-52 reads:  “After three days they [Jesus’ parents] found him [Jesus] in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.  When his parents saw him they were atonished.”  . .  “he said to them, .. Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?  But they did not understand what he said to them.”  If the virgin birth story were correct, his parents would have known of his divine origin and should not have been surprised!

We are sure he at least spoke Aramaic, the language of working people in Galilee.

His preaching to the Jewish working class must have been in their language, Aramaic.  He may also have known some Hebrew and some Greek, but this is not certain.

4.2       His Ministry

Around age thirty, he chose to be baptised in the Jordan River by his kinsman, John the Baptist, who was a very successful preacher of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3.23 reports: “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.”  This may be true, or it may be a round number, or it may be an OT reference to King David starting his reign at age thirty (2 Sam 5.4)). [Bible, footnote to Lk 3.23]. His exact age does not matter.

After his adult baptism, he had a public ministry of teaching, preaching and healing in the synagogues, villages and countryside of Galilee, and later, in or near Jerusalem. His teaching in village synagogues and at the temple in Jerusalem is well documented.

Second Century Synagogue at Capernaum. Photo by gugganij. Wikimedia Commons.

In Mk 1.21 (also Jn 6.59) he taught in the synagogue at Capernaum.

In Lk 4.16-30 he taught in the synagogue in Nazareth (also reported in Mk. 6.1-2 where Nazareth is called his ‘home town’).   In Luke 6.6 (also Mk 3.1-6;  Mt 12.1-14) he taught in a synagogue and healed the man with a withered hand.  In Lk 13.10-17 he taught in a synagogue and healed a crippled woman.

Mt 9.35 says “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.”  Mk 1.39 (also Mt 4.23) says “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”  Lk 4.44 says “So he [Jesus] continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea [some text versions say Galilee]. In Jn 4.39-42, he also preached to Samaritans.

In Jn 18.20 (also Mk 14.49) Jesus said  “I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.  I have said nothing in secret.”  Mk 11.18 say that when he spoke in the Temple in Jerusalem, “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

As he often quoted OT passages, and taught how to interpret them, Jesus must have been well educated in Judaism.  He was thoroughly Jewish.

Flusser gives five arguments that Jesus was well educated in Judaism [Sage, 11-14]:

  • When he was twelve, Jesus stayed behind at the Temple, “. . . sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Lk 2.46-7).
  • Jn 7.15 says “The Jews were astonished at it [his teachings], saying, ‘How does this man have such learning [alt. translation: know his letters], when he has never been taught?”
  • Josephus described Jesus as ‘a wise man.’
  • Peter, Judas, Nathanael, other ‘disciples’, and the Pharisee leader Nicodemus all addressed him as ‘Rabbi’ which means teacher/master (Mk 9.5, 14.45; Jn 1.38, 1.49, 3.2, 4.31, 9.2, etc.). The word ‘rabbi’ refers to scholars and teachers of Torah.
  • Carpenters were regarded as particularly learned. If a difficult problem was under discussion, they would ask, “Is there a carpenter among us, or the son of a carpenter, who can solve the problem for us?” (from J. Levy, Worterbuch uber die Talmudim und Midraschim,  #3.338)

Two additional proofs that Jesus could read and was informally educated in Judaism are:

  • In Luke 4.16-30, he reads from the Isaiah scroll and then preaches a homily.
  • He often quotes scripture. Perhaps Jesus got some of his learning from Zechariah, who was a priest and father of his kinsman, John the Baptist. (Luke 1.5)

He chose twelve disciples to help him in his work.

Jesus and his disciples walk through the corn, ca 1870. Wikimedia Commons.

Our web page, Twelve Disciples, gives more details.  Despite the fact that in Jesus’ times everyone knew that after 150 years of exile, ten of the twelve original tribes had long since ceased to exist, nevertheless, Jesus seems to have intentionally chosen twelve disciples, perhaps to symbolize a renewal of Israel [Bdict, tribes, 1070].  However, Jesus’ promise that his twelve disciples would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19.28; Lk 22.30), looks like nostalgic fiction, and we doubt Jesus ever said it.

His ministry most likely lasted at least two years.

The three synoptic gospels seem to imply indirectly that his ministry lasted just one year and he only took that one fatal trip to Jerusalem.  But judging from the number of Passovers mentioned in John (Jn 2.23, 6.4, 13.1 perhaps also 5.1), the period of his ministry was more than two years and possibly more than three [ZIBD, Christ, 265].  Fredriksen also favors a three-year ministry [PF3, 16].  We agree with her arguments that a one-year ministry would not provide the time to develop such a large following, and the settling of his followers in Jerusalem shortly after his death makes more sense if his ministry included several visits to Judea.

4.3       His Teachings

Religiously, Jesus was a very intense Jew who understood the Hebrew teachings.  He alludes to or quotes a large number of OT passages.

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus alludes to or quotes all five books of Moses, the three Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel), eight of the twelve Minor Prophets, and five of the ‘writings’ (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Daniel and Chronicles).  His favorites are Isaiah (40 refs), Deuteronomy (15), Psalms (13) and Daniel [CE1, 87].
Some of these links were likely added by the NT authors.

His most famous form of teaching was the parable, wherein a spiritual point is taught by reference to everyday experiences familiar to the listeners.  There are doubts about some parables.

All forty-two of Jesus’ parables in the three synoptic gospels are listed in [Bdict, parables, 736-9].  However, “As the original parables were retold, their original content was often forgotten; perhaps the parables that have come down to us are only outlines or summaries of longer stories that have been reduced to their essence.” [RDstory, 161]  This may explain why some of the parables ( Faithful slave, Lk 12.41-48; the dishonest manager, Lk 16.1-13; and treasures new and old, Mt 13.52) are difficult to understand.  Distinguished Catholic scholar John P. Meier argues that only four parables-those of the Mustard Seed, the Evil Tenants, the Talents, and the Great Supper-can be attributed to the historical Jesus with fair certitude. [ JPM1, Volume 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (2016)].

He taught better ways of being faithful to the spirit of Torah rather than the letter.

Section 6.3 shows how these teachings got him into trouble with the Pharisees.

He taught the dual requirement to love God and to love your neighbour.

Mk 12.28b -31 (also Mt 22.34-40; Lk 10.25-28):  “He [a scribe] asked him ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.’ ”  These two commandments are from Deut 6.4-5 and Lev 19.18, respectively.

He taught people a version of the Lord’s Prayer, but its exact text is uncertain. 

Two versions are found in Matt 6.9-15 and Lk 11.2-4.  The Bible footnotes to Matt say: (1) the ending, For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen. is only found in some ancient but less reliable manuscripts, and (2) rescue us from the evil one was probably added by Matthew.  Luke’s version leaves out Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven and rescue us from the evil one.  Where Matthew refers to debts, Luke refers to sins.  The Greek words used in both versions clearly indicate they were translated from Aramaic (as expected). [Bdict, Lord’s Prayer, 566]                                    

He also taught a promise of forgiveness that leads to the reconciliation of sinners.

See Mt 24.47 and Acts 2.38.

His teachings about the ‘Kingdom of God’ (or Matthew’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) have two main meanings: the kingdom is both in heaven in the future, and it is also a reality here and now.

Some scholars question these two contradictory meanings. Do these contradictory NT texts derive from Jesus’ own inconsistent or paradoxical perspective, from errors of the gospels, or does one set of texts derive from Jesus and the other set from the retrojections of his later followers? [Bdict, 467]

Kingdom of God may also be translated as ‘reign of God.’ [Bdict, 459]

E.P.Sanders, in his The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993, pp. 171-5),  has found six different meanings of ‘Kingdom of Heaven’:

  • The transcendent realm of heaven;
  • The transcendent realm of heaven which will in future come to earth;
  • A future realm that will be introduced by a cosmic event;
  • A vague future kingdom of virtually no specificity;
  • A special realm on earth; and
  • A kingdom that is present immediately on earth in Jesus’ own ministry.

Many of his teaching are universally admired.

Three of his many admired teachings are: (1) The Golden rule: Mt 7.12 (also Lk 6.31).  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  (2) The Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5.1-7.29) and/or Plain (Lk 6.17-49 & various); and (3) “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6.21; Lk 12.34).

He also issued threats and warnings to the unrepentant.

These are listed in Section 6.2.

Many people, including his brothers, did not believe in him pre-resurrection.  This non-belief also occured in specific towns like Nazareth, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, and sometimes more generally.

Here are the NT passages:  (1) During his ministry, “. . . not even his [Jesus’] brothers believed in him.” (Jn 7.5).  (2) For Nazareth, see Mt 13.57-8 (also Mk 6.3-6) and the story of Jesus reading in the Nazareth synagogue in Lk 4.28-30.  (3) For the other three villages, see Mt 11.20-24, (also Lk 10.13-15).  (4) Jn 6.66 says “Because of this [a difficult teaching] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

(5) Jn 12.37-43 (parts)  “Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.… Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him.  But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (6) Lk 9.52-56 shows how his group approached a Samaritan village, but “they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”

4.4       His Miracles

Reports of his seventeen healing miracles and five exorcisms of demons, may contain some truth but also some exaggeration.

Healing the Blind Man, by Václav Mánes, 1832. Wikimedia Commons.

A complete list of all the miracles performed by Jesus is found at [Bdict, miracles, 638-42].  Jesus was the most successful faith healer of his time, though others within and outside the Bible also had that skill to a lesser degree, as discuss in our Exaltation web page.  Today we think that demons are not real and sin is not a cause of physical illness, but these stories are from a time and place when people (including Jesus!) believed these things.  This suggests that psychology is at work here: much of the healing may be due to the power of suggestion, also known as the power of positive thinking, or the placebo effect.  Thus, faith healing as a psychological process is plausible, though most stories were likely exggerated by the post-resurrection viewpoint of the gospel authors.   “It may be allowed that He had remarkable gifts of healing, but these are in the class of ‘faithcures” (thus Harnack), and not truly supernatural.  [ISBE, Jesus Christ].

Reports of his resuscitations of three individuals (daughter of Jarius, widow’s son and Lazarus) are not believable.

The three stories of resuscitations performed by Jesus are:

(1)  He resuscitated the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue. (Mk 5.22-43, also Mt 9.18-25; Lk 8.41-56.)  Mk 5.23 says that she was “at the point of death” and then Mk 5.35 gives a later report that she was dead.  Jesus said she was only sleeping, and resuscitated her; Mk 5.42-43 finishes the story with “they were overcome with amazement.  He strictly ordered them that no one should know about this.”

(2)  The widow’s son at Nain is resuscitated during his own funeral procession.  This story is only found in Lk 7.11-17.  The Bible footnote says this story has clear parallels in 1 Kg 17.17-24,  Elijah revives the widow’s son; and in 2 Kg 4, Elisha raises the Shunammite’s Son.  It was also foreshadowed in Lk 4.25-26.  The phrase, “Jesus gave him to his mother” is an exact quote from 1 Kg 17.23.   It looks like this story was copied from the OT, making it suspect.

(3)  Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, is resuscitated after being dead four days.  This story is only found in Jn 11.1-44.  As is typical of John’s gospel, this story has Jesus turn it into a sermon on his powers!  Jn 11.23-27:  “Jesus said to her [Martha], ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?’  She said to him,’Yes, Lord I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ ” Although this story was not copied from the OT, it is suspicious because of the theological pronouncement, and a resuscitation after four days of death is just not believable!

Reports of his five physical miracles (changing water into wine, the huge catch of fish,  calming the storm, walking on water, and feeding the 4000 and/or 5000,) are also not believable.

Here are the five events, followed by their gospel references.  Four of the five stories have significant OT links, making their literal truth questionable.

  • Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Only found in Jn 2.1-11. John calls this a ‘sign’, as he does for many of Jesus’ actions.
  • Hugh catch of fish while recruiting disciples. Only found in Lk 5.1-11.  This passage finishes with Jesus telling Simon “from now on you will be catching people.”  The Bible footnote says “This story echoes earlier scriptural accounts of the calls of Moses while tending sheep (Ex 3), and Isaiah in the Temple (Isa 6).”
  • Calming the storm. Mk 4.37-41; also Mt 8.23-27; Lk 8.22-25.  There are several OT refs here: being swamped (Ps 107.23-25); asleep, a posture of trust in God (Job 11.18-19); the plea for deliverance (Pss 69.1-2, 14-15; 107.26-28a);  the wind is told to be still Ps 4.6-7;  the Bible footnote says that the quelling of chaotic waters implies divine power (11 OT refs from: Genesis, Job, Psalms (5 refs.), Isaiah, Jeremiah and 2 Esdres).

    Jesus walking on water. Daniel of Uranc,1433. Wikimedia Commons.

  • Walking on water . Mk 6.48-51; also Mt 14.22-33; Jn 6.16-21. The Bible footnotes give the OT links:  He intended to pass them by is a remark typical of theophanies (revelations of God), and alludes to God’s veiled self-disclosure to Moses (Ex 33.18-23) and Elijah (1 Kg 19.11-12);   His words  it is I  is a version of  I am,  an expression of divine self-revelation in the OT (Ex 3.13-15; Isa 41.4; 43.10-11). Jesus again calmed a storm – or is this story and the previous one really the same story, changed into two different versions after forty years of retelling.
  • Feeding the five thousand. Mk 6.35-44; also Mt 14.13-21; Lk 9.10b-17; Jn 6.1-15.  The Bible footnote says “The feeding of the five thousand recalls Israel’s miraculous sustenance by God (Ex 16.13-35; Num 11.1-35; Neh 9.15; Ps 78.17-31; Isa 49.8-13) as well as Jewish expectations of an end-time feast for God’s elect (Isa 25.6-8).  Sheep without a shepherd has many links to OT passages: Num 27.15-17; 1 Kg 22.17; 2 Chr 18.16; Ezek 34.1-31; and Jdt 11.19.
  • Feeding the four thousand. Mk 8.1-9; also Mt 15.32-38.  In this story seven loaves and a few small fish feed thousands of people and the left-overs fill seven baskets.  The previous story has five loaves and two fish feed thousands of people and the left-overs fill twelve baskets.  Both stories end with Jesus and his men departing by boat.  The Bible footnote describes this as “another version of the feeding of the multitude.”

Reports of his five Spiritual miracles (virgin birth, transfiguration, resurrection, ascension, and vanishing at Emmaus) are also not believable.

All five of these spiritual miracles have significant OT links.  The virgin birth is discussed below in Section 6.1; the transfiguration, resurrection and ascension are all discussed in our other web page, Exaltation.  At Emmaus, when Jesus’ followers were walking with, and talking to, a stranger, they finally recognized the man as Christ, but then he vanished (Lk 24.31).

4.5       Jewish Leadership Reaction

Several NT passages show that the Jewish leaders plotted against him.

(1)  Mk 3.6  (also Mt 12.9-14; Lk 6.6-11) shows how after Jesus healed the man with a withered hand on the sabbath, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

(2)  In Mk 11.17-19 (also Lk 19.47-48), just after Jesus cleansed the Temple of the moneychangers, and called it a ‘den of robbers,’ the chief priests and the scribes … “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

(3)  In Jn 5.2-18, when the Pharisees saw Jesus healing many on the sabbath, Jesus said to them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.’  For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.”

(4)  Jn 11.47-53 reads:  “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do?  This man is performing many signs. [he had just raised Lazarus]  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’…so from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

4.6       The Passion

So many details of the passion story are contradictory that it cannot be considered very reliable.

The Jewish Council condemned him for not denying that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.

The Jewish Council never accused Jesus of claiming to be ‘King of the Jews,’ while the Romans only accused him of claiming to be ‘King of the Jews.’

The reported meeting of the Sanhedrin at night is unbelievable. The Bible footnote to Mt 26.59 reads “The [Sanhedrin] session described here raises many questions, because trials during Passover, night trials, and single sessions for capital offenses were forbidden by Israelite law codified about 200 CE.”  This objection is supported by Paul Winter in [Bency, Jesus, 454].

Ossuary of the high priest, Joseph Caiaphas. Israeli Museum, Jerusalem. Photo by Deror Avi. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are the reports of his trial before the High Priest, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin.  In Mt 26.63 he was accused of claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God.  In Mk 14.61-62 Jesus says “I am’ when asked if he is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One.  In Lk 22.67-70 Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah or the Son of God.  In Jn 18.19 the high priest only questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.

The Jewish Council did not have the power to execute anyone in 30 CE, so he was sent to the Roman authorities.  Furthermore, at this point, only the Romans could appoint a King of the Jews.  Thus, this accusation is a political one that the Jews hoped would motivate the Romans to kill him.

Jesus is referred to as ‘King of the Jews’ 18 times in the NT: 17 of these are during his trail before Pilate, and the other one is the early reference is Mt 2.2, where the magi ask where the child born king of the Jews can be found.

John 19.21 says “Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am a King of the Jews.’

He was sent to the Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate, for trial.  He was found guilty of claiming to be ‘King of the Jews’ and sent to be crucified.

None of his disciples were charged with any crime, so Jesus was not really seen as the leader of an uprising.  During all of Pilate’s ten-year reign (26 – 36 CE) Caiaphas was the high priest (serving 18-36 CE) and as high priest he was also a political leader and head of the Sanhedrin (Bible footnote to Jn 11.48-49).  Since powerful people often do each other favors, did Pilate kill Jesus as a favour to Caiaphas?

He suffered and was crucified on a cross.

John says the crucifixion was the day before Passover, but the other gospels say it was the day of Passover.

The sign on the cross said he claimed to be the King of the Jews

Matthew 27.37 gives the inscription as “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Mark mentions no inscription.  Luke 23.38 gives the inscription as “This is the King of the Jews.”  John 19.19 gives the inscription as “Jesus of Nazareth [Greek the Nazorean], the King of the Jews.” Only John 19.20 says the text was written in three languages, “in Hebrew[1], in Latin, and in Greek.”  footnote [1] says ‘that is, Aramaic’.

He was buried in a tomb newly cut into rock, owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man who was both a Christ follower and a member of a ‘Council’.

Monument commemorating Jesus’ tomb. Photo by Bukvoed. Wikimedia Commons.

The story of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb is found in all four gospels, with these details:
Matt 27.57-60 (a rich man; disciple of Jesus; his own newly hewn tomb);
Mk 15.43-46 (a respected member of the council; waiting for the the kingdom of God; asked for the body of Jesus; wrapped the body in a linen cloth; laid it in a rock tomb);
Lk 23.50-53 (a member of the council who did not agree with their plan; no one had ever been laid in that rock tomb);
Jn 19.38-40 (a secret disciple of Jesus; with Nicodemus he took the body; wrapped the body with spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews).               .

He died sometime around 30 CE.

Some say more likely circa 33 CE.  Pilate’s own records seem to indicate 33 CE, but many scholars doubt the accuracy of those records.

On the third day, some of his women followers came to treat his dead body and found the tomb empty.

The gospel stories of which women came, what they found (was the stone rolled away or not) and who they saw at the tomb vary greatly.

Over the next forty days, many of his followers claimed they saw him in visionary form.

Acts 1.3 says “appearing to them during forty days” before his ascension in Acts 1.9.

Reports of seeing him in the flesh are suspected of being theologically motivated.

After that, Jesus was rarely seen.

The NT reports two other visions of Jesus over the next few years: (1) during his stoning, Stephen saw a vision of Jesus (also described as the Son of Man) “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7.55-56); and (2)  Paul saw a vision of Jesus during his conversion experience.

He did not literally ascend to heaven.

Resurrection of Christ, by Nikolai Bruni, 1905. Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral. Saint Petersburg. Photo by Wolfgang Moroder. Wikimedia Commons.

The NT only describes Jesus’ ascension to heaven in three places: Mark, Luke and Acts.

It also refers to the ascension elsewhere, but only in a derivative way.  For example, 1 Tim 3.16 refers to him as “taken up in glory.”

Mark 16.19 reads “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” The Bible footnote says Sat down at the right hand of God (see Ps 110.1) is a prevalent NT metaphor for Jesus’ exaltation.

Luke 24.51 says “While he [Jesus] was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”   The footnote to this verse says “other ancient authorities lack and was carried up into heaven,” so this whole ascension story is dubious.  [Bible, 1813]

Acts 1.9-11 says “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  The footnote says the cloud signifies the presence and activity of God, just as it did in Luke’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus, in Lk 9.34.  In other words, the cloud being a theological symbol casts doubt on the literal truth of this version too. [Bible, 1857]

And finally, since theologians now admit that heaven is not a physical place in the sky, any story about him going ‘up’ to heaven must be allegorical, not literal.  Note that these three primary references to the ‘ascension’ story do not use any version of the word ‘ascension’.

Here is the only other related passage.  Jn 20.17 reports that when Mary Magdalene approached him, “Jesus said to her, ‘do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”  This story sounds made up.

4.7       Post Ascension Story

Some of his followers came to believe that Jesus was resurrected, so that he must have been the Messiah and Son of God.  This conviction was the start of the Christ-followers branch of Judaism.   It was promoted to both Jews and gentiles alike, and when it found more success amongst the gentiles, it evolved into the separate religion, Christianity.

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