Post 11: The Enduring Message of Jesus of Nazareth

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Carl H. Bloch’s painting of the Sermon on the Mount. (1877).

Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

  • Matthew 5:8

A man steps off a commuter train on his way home from work. The hour is late, around 11pm, and the long day has taken a toll. As he touches down onto the platform, his eyes and feet burn with exhaustion. Fighting his fatigue, he slowly makes his way through the terminal and to the parking lot. The station is empty, as most commuters had already made their way home. The parking lot is equally bare, with only a few cars left. Wearily, he emerges from the terminal and walks toward his vehicle.

As the man approaches his car, he glances to his right and suddenly locks eyes with a stranger standing next to a sheltered bus stop. The stranger is noticeably unkempt and likely without a home. He is covered in dirty garments that expose only his face, rugged beard and long flowing brown hair. The stranger stares in the man’s direction. As he approaches his car, the man returns the stranger’s gaze, noticing his brilliant and penetrating dark brown eyes. Their eyes remain locked until the man reaches his vehicle. As he sits down and starts the ignition, the man feels a warm rush engulf his body.

___________________________

Around the year 4-6 C.E., Jesus was born in the small town of Nazareth. [1] At the time, Nazareth rested on the brow of a hilltop in lower Galilee, with no more than 100 Jewish families living in the tiny village. [2] His family came from humble origins. Likely, they shared a windowless one-room mud house with their livestock. [3] Overall, Nazareth residents were poor, living off their own crops and artisan labor. [4]

Aside from his birth, ministry at Capernaum [5] and crucifixion, not much else is known about Jesus the man. In fact, historians have struggled to find direct evidence that demonstrates his existence. While there are many reasons for the absence of corroborating proof, two immediately come to mind.

First, written accounts of Jesus, such as the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles, do not provide first-hand accounts of Jesus’ earthly existence. For example, the synoptic texts, [6] Mark, Matthew and Luke, were composed after Jesus’ death [7] and by authors who never personally met him. [8]  Further, the synoptic texts are pseudepigraphical pieces, or works attributed to but not written by a specific author. [9] Additionally, Paul’s Epistles disregard Jesus’ life on earth, and instead describe a heavenly Jesus as the courier of his revelation. [10] Thus, the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles are works of ‘faith’, not history, and likely do not provide a factual account of Jesus the man.

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Even if the birth of Jesus is proven to be fiction, his message still guides our existence on Earth to this day. (Gerard van Honthorst, 1622).

Second, Jesus did not record the events or circumstances surrounding his life. Illiteracy rates in first century Palestine are estimated to have been around 97 percent. [11] As a Jewish peasant from Galilee, it is unlikely that Jesus could read or write Hebrew or Aramaic, the respective languages of Jewish scholars and the working poor. [12] As a result, Jesus authored no documents that can directly prove his existence.

Nonetheless, we can still point to circumstantial evidence to establish Jesus the man. These factual inferences, provided by the synoptic texts and other writings, may offer proof that confirms Jesus’ life on Earth.

For example, Jesus’ birth is accounted for in Matthew and Luke, however indicating Bethlehem as his birthplace. [13] Also, Mark establishes a vocation for Jesus, telling us that he was a carpenter in his early years. [14] Further, all four canonized gospels [15] depict his trip to Jerusalem where he “cleanses” the Court of Gentiles by overturning the tables of the money changers. [16] Finally, after spending time with John the Baptist, Jesus launched his ministry in Capernaum,  [17] which eventually led to his arrest and execution.

Perhaps Jesus’ most highly regarded act in the gospels is the Sermon on the Mount. According to Mark chapters 5-7, Jesus gathered his disciples and other observers and lectured on morality and the refutation of vengeance. His sermon included timeless lines such as ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’ and ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ The Sermon has greatly influenced Christianity, finding its way into many sayings and homilies,  [18] and drew praise from secular figures like Thomas Jefferson who called it “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.” [19]

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The Sermon on the Mount provides a simple yet timeless message: act with kindness and understanding. (Darinka Maja, Flickr).

The enduring brilliance of the Sermon on the Mount may provide a resolution to the debate over Jesus’ existence. Whether or not Jesus ever set foot on Earth, his teachings in the Sermon provide immortal principles for our own earthly existence. In other words, his mission to carry mankind closer to earthly divinity, or living through unabated kindness, endures even if his life story is fictional. Thus, the message alone seeks to make us better people while on earth, not perfect, but gracious human beings guided by the Sermon’s message.

In all, the goal of seeking the historical Jesus should not be to prove his existence beyond a doubt. The absence of conclusive fact leaves us without a definitive answer, and more importantly obscures the core of Jesus’ teachings. Rather, the focus should lie within his enduring gift to mankind: an earthly pathway to divinity through simple acts of benevolence.

So, we all should take time to remind ourselves of the lessons espoused in the Sermon on the Mount.  Whether we do so by reading the Gospel of Mark, or through a chance encounter in a commuter train parking lot, it is infinitely more worthwhile than debating the existence of its author.

[1] Renan, E. (1991). The Life of Jesus. Prometheus Books. New York.

[2] Aslan, R. (2013). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House. New York.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] ‘Synoptic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘Viewed Together’. Id.

[7] The Gospel of Mark, the first of canonized works, was written sometime after the year 70 C.E., almost 40 years after Jesus’ death. Aslan, R. (2013).

[8] Aslan, R. (2013).

[9] Id.

[10] Lataster, R. (2014). Did Historical Jesus Really Exist? The Evidence Just Doesn’t Add Up. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/18/did-historical-jesus-exist-the-traditional-evidence-doesnt-hold-up/?utm_term=.11ecfd3abf1e. See also Galatians 1:11-12 where Paul indicates that his gospel is not human, but rather delivered to him from Jesus the Christ.

[11] Aslan, R. (2013).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] The four canonized gospels are Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. (Id.)

[16] Id.

[17] Renan, E. (1991).

[18] Encyclopedia Britannica. (2014). The Sermon on the Mount. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sermon-on-the-Mount.

[19] Gutting, G. (2012). Returning to the Sermon on the Mount. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/returning-to-the-sermon-on-the-mount/.


2 thoughts on “Post 11: The Enduring Message of Jesus of Nazareth

  1. I often wonder why so many people who say they are Christians do not adhere to any of the teachings attributed to Jesus. I believe that Jesus lived although I’m not sure about some of the ethereal notions about him. I think he was an extraordinary, brilliant human being. Is he the Son of God, one has to believe in God to believe so.
    DR

    Like

  2. “…….the message alone seeks to make us better people while here on earth, not perfect, but gracious human beings being guided by the Sermon’s message.” That we should all be guided by that message!!

    Like

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