People

Jesus by Mark Allan Powell

What do the Gospels say about Jesus?

The four Gospels are often read together to provide a composite portrait of Jesus that informs Christian faith and religion. According to this portrait, Jesus is a Jew, miraculously born to a virgin in Bethlehem but raised as the son of a carpenter in Nazareth. Throughout his life, he fulfills numerous ancient prophecies, indicating that he is the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.

As an adult, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, calls disciples, and conducts a traveling ministry among the villages of Galilee. He announces that God’s kingdom is imminent and tells memorable parables to illustrate what this means. He also proclaims a radical ethic that calls people to renounce material possessions, love even their enemies, and reassess biblical interpretations that make God’s commandments burdensome. He identifies himself as the Son of God and claims unprecedented authority for revealing God’s nature and will. His teaching is accompanied by a number of provocative acts, such as dining with tax collectors, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and turning over tables of money changers in the temple court.

The Gospels report that Jesus heals many sick and disabled people. He often does this through exorcism, forcing evil spirits to leave so that people they have been afflicting might be cured. Jesus also works miracles that seem to defy the laws of nature: he walks on water, multiplies a limited quantity of food, and changes water into wine.

Jesus’ ministry brings him into conflict with the religious leaders of Israel. They disagree with him over many matters, and he often speaks harshly of them. Ultimately, his career comes to a climax when he is arrested and crucified in Jerusalem. The Gospels present that event as the result of a total breakdown of justice and righteousness: high-ranking religious leaders collaborate with a predictably unjust political ruler (Pilate), and even Jesus’ disciples betray, deny, and desert him. Nailed to a cross, Jesus suffers and dies; his body is placed in a tomb; then, just as he predicted, he rises from the dead and appears to a number of his followers.

New Testament scholars are often interested in reading the individual Gospel portraits of Jesus to see what each author—or the community behind each Gospel—considered to be particularly important or distinctive. For example, Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as insisting that all commandments of the law remain valid until the end of time (Matt 5:18), though this is not something one would gather from reading the other Gospels (for example, Mark 7:19). Likewise, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is unable to work miracles for people who do not have faith (Mark 6:5), but that is not the case in Matthew, Luke, and John.

Scholars are interested in these individual portraits in order to make better sense of each Gospel on its own terms. Knowing that Luke’s Jesus frequently condemns the wealthy and blesses the poor establishes a context for interpreting texts in that particular Gospel. Realizing that Jesus does not tell parables or exorcize demons in the Gospel of John encourages a more deliberate focus on the aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching that are significant for that Gospel author.

What do historians think of Jesus?

Many historians are interested in discerning what can be affirmed about Jesus apart from religious interpretation. Rather than taking the Gospel accounts at face value, they subject them to analysis, employing the same sort of criteria that would be used with other ancient writings when studying historical figures. They also supplement what is found in the New Testament with material from nonbiblical writings, such as the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the writings of the Jewish Roman historian Josephus.

Such historians are skeptical of miracle stories and are reticent to accept reports of Jesus saying things that would provide later Christians with proof texts for their doctrinal beliefs. Still, much of what is reported of Jesus in the Gospels (especially the Synoptic Gospels) is widely accepted as reliable. In particular, the significance of Jesus as a moral teacher and social reformer is often attested in a purely secular vein, apart from any perspective of faith or religious devotion. Some historical scholars also accept the Synoptic portrayal of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher of the end-times, though some dispute the accuracy of this portrayal.

Mark Allan Powell, "Jesus", n.p. [cited 22 Feb 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/jesus

Contributors

Mark Allan Powell

Mark Allan Powell
Professor, Trinity Lutheran Seminary

Mark Allan Powell is professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary (Columbus, Ohio). He is editor of the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary and author of Introducing the New Testament (Baker, 2009) and Jesus as a Figure in History (Westminster John Knox, 2012).

Jesus is presented in the Gospels as a person of extraordinary significance for faith, religion, and history.

Did you know…?

  • Jesus talks more about the kingdom of God than he does about anything else.
  • Jesus visits many villages in Galilee but is never said to visit any of the large cities located in that region (Caesarea, Sepphoris, Tiberias).
  • Jesus taught in Jewish synagogues and often talked about things that would only be of interest to Jews (Sabbath regulations, the wearing of phylacteries).
  • Jesus had twelve male disciples, but their ministry was sustained through the support of several prominent women (Luke 8:1-3).
  • Only two of the four Gospels (Matthew, Luke) say Jesus was born to a virgin, but all four say he fed a multitude, was crucified, and rose from the dead.
  • In Luke, Jesus says he has come to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) but in John, Jesus never mentions helping the poor or says anything negative about riches.
  • By traditional estimates, up to 90% of what John’s Gospel says about Jesus is not found in the other three Gospels.
  • Historians tend to think the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) present the most reliable account of Jesus’ teaching, since what is found in John sounds more like Christian doctrine that developed after Jesus’ life.
  • The apostle Paul rarely mentions the life of Jesus in his letters, though he does refer to his Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection.

A set or system of moral principles.

The expulsion of demons.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

Service providers in the Jerusalem Temple who converted Greek and Roman money into Jewish currency for Jews visiting for Holy Days.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Matt 5:18

18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

Mark 7:19

19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

Mark 6:5

5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Of or related to beliefs held by an institution, such as a religion.

An apocryphal gospel made up of sayings attributed to Jesus Christ and considered to be Gnostic in viewpoint.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Unrelated to religion.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Luke 8:1-3

Some Women Accompany Jesus
1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve wer ... View more

Luke 4:18

18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery ... View more

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