the jesus we know

Separating the scant facts from the copious fiction about Jesus of Nazareth.
jesus iconography

He rose from humble roots, became a successful preacher, helped found what would become the world’s dominant religion, seen as the messiah by a third of the world and as a prophet by well over a quarter of the rest of the population. Most of the human species knows his name in some way, shape or form. That’s an impressive resume for someone not even in his mid 30s. But like all great men in who’s name history was shaped, Jesus of Nazareth takes many forms for many people and the accounts of his life and teachings have caused many a controversy.

In fact, there are even people who think he never existed. They point to the Biblical story of how Jesus turned water into wine for a wedding in John 2:1–11and note that it pits his supernatural powers against the Roman god of wine, Dionysius. Since the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death and the new religion of Christianity had to compete with dozens of other faiths in the ancient world, prophets, messiahs and gods were often placed competing with each other like this. The miracles performed by Jesus were designed to show that any ability of the Roman pantheon could easily be matched by this messiah just like Yahweh matched or surpassed the pagan gods of the Old Testament. But there’s a flaw in this argument.

While it’s true that Jesus’ life is quite under-documented outside the Bible, it’s kind of strange that anyone would expect more. While he did cause a stir at Passover in Jerusalem and brought down the Romans’ wrath, Jesus wouldn’t become a prominent figure until several decades after his death. Expecting noted historians to document the life of a Galilean preacher embraced by small groups of Jews waiting for a messiah to free them from Roman oppression is unrealistic. In the Gospels, the writers focused on what they thought was critical to convey about him and his teachings, and to justify his powers to a world dominated by 5,000 year old pagan beliefs.

Another major controversy ignited by the Priory of Sion hoax and Holy Blood, Holy Grail is the question of whether Jesus was married or not. Over a millennium and a half of tradition insists that he wasn’t and that he never had children. According to pastors and many theologians, the Gospel writers would’ve said loud and clear if he had a family of his own and discarded Gnostic texts which seem to describe a love affair between him and Mary Magdalene are not a credible source. Here we have to leave the realm of history and consider ancient Jewish culture.

We know that Jesus was a very devout Jew at a time when Judaism was splintering under the rule of the Romans and after the tyranny of King Herod. In Judaism, marriage and children were of supreme importance. If a man is married to a woman who was unable to give birth to a child in ten years, he was allowed to find a mistress for the purpose of procreation. In the Torah, this is what happened with Abraham. After he failed to have a child with his wife Sarah, she offered her hand maiden Hagar as a surrogate who bore him a son, Ishmael. (What happened to Hagar and Ishmael after that is widely believed to be a metaphor for the split between Jews and Arabs.)

Jesus would have grown up according to the rules set by Abraham’s precedent. For him not to be married and with at least several children by the age of thirty would be as unusual as a teen with six kids is today. If anything, the Gospel writers would’ve noted if Jesus was a total ascetic in a religious culture which demanded for men to have heirs so much so, it allowed for sexual surrogates. As for the Gnostic gospels, it’s hard to give them absolute authority on the subject as they were written even later than the Gospels themselves and infused with heavy doses of all sorts of esoteric musings and anecdotes.

Still, that leaves the question of why Gospel writers didn’t note whether Jesus was married and had kids or not. One possible answer is that they didn’t see it as important enough to warrant a special note. After all, they wrote almost nothing about what Jesus did for 18 years. They didn’t even record his bar mitzvah, the day he became an adult by ancient Jewish law and custom. It’s a serious omission and it makes one wonder what else they might’ve skipped in their editorial focus on Jesus’ teachings and works. We’ll probably never know for sure if Jesus had a wife and children, but when we consider his upbringing and culture, it’s far from a crazy idea.

Every time I research anything about Jesus of Nazareth from Biblical and historical standpoints, I’m always amazed at how someone so famous can also be so enigmatic. While we might know of Jesus, it doesn’t seem that we actually know him as we debate everything from his birth and his family life, to his execution and burial, with no end in sight.

# oddities // ancient world / christianity / jesus christ / religion


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