There are many ways to approach this question, and since many people (myself included) like nice, neat categories, let’s examine some of these approaches separately: Jesus in history, Jesus in Christianity, and the name Jesus.
Who Is Jesus Historically?
Jesus was a Jewish man born in the first century CE. He was Jewish by both ancestry and religious affiliation. If you’re from a Western country, you might be most familiar with European-looking depictions of Jesus (like in this post’s featured image). Those are inaccurate, of course, and there are a lot of mixed feelings among Christians and non-Christians alike concerning those images, but European-looking Jesus isn’t the only one out there. It’s just the most common in the West. Many other cultures have also imagined a Jesus that looks like themselves. We’ll visit that in a later post.
There are three general sources that attest to his existence. The most obvious source is the Christian Bible’s New Testament. Christianity is “named” after the Christ, which the New Testament authors identify as Jesus. Another source is the Jewish historian Josephus who mentions Jesus both as the brother of James and as the Messiah of Christianity. The third source is the Roman historian Tacitus who mentions the Christ who was executed by Pontius Pilate.
All three sources refer to Jesus as the Christ or Messiah of Christianity, but regardless of whether they agreed, they all at least attest to the existence of the person of Jesus. There are also other historical mentions, but these are probably the three most prominent.
According to New Testament authors, Jesus’s hometown was a place called Nazareth (e.g. Luke 4:16; John 1:45) in a region called Galilee (e.g. Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9), which is just East of the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem, which is in the region of Judea (Matthew 2:1), south of Galilee, but his parents had only traveled there for some sort of Roman registration of citizens (Luke 2:1-4). This is where the story of his birth in a manger takes place (the classic, although inaccurate, Christmas nativity scenes).
Famously, Jesus was executed by the Roman government on the order of Pontius Pilate, which is a critical part of the Christian narrative and corroborated by Tacitus. The method of execution was crucifixion. This happened on a hill called Golgotha (the Skull or Place of a Skull) outside of the city of Jerusalem in Judea. Although the Romans conducted the execution, it was at the insistence of Jewish religious rulers and the crowd they incited against Jesus. (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19)
The commonly accepted timeline is that Jesus started his “ministry” (the part of his life where he traveled around teaching and performing miracles) when he was about 30 years old, and he was crucified approximately three years later (possibly between 30 and 40 CE).
Who Is Jesus to Christians?
To Christians, Jesus is the Christ or the Messiah. Christ is a Greek word that means essentially the same thing as the Hebrew word Messiah — essentially a savior king. Check out the Christ/Messiah section of What Is Christianity for a bit more on this, but the important thing, here, is that the title of Christ is where the term Christian comes from. Christians are disciples of (followers of) the Christ, who we believe is Jesus.
Jesus is our savior, the meaning of which varies in complexity across many expressions of Christian faith. E.g. savior of all creation, savior of humanity, saved from the consequences of our actions, saved from separation from God, etc. The commonality is that something about both who Jesus is (the son of God or God the Son) and what Jesus did (how he lived his life, how he died, and that he rose from the dead) opens a way to salvation for humanity and creation.
Jesus is also our king. The kingdom over which Jesus rules isn’t a matter of literal governments but what we call the kingdom of God. Again, what this actually means to each Christian or different groups of Christians varies. For some, the kingdom refers to Heaven, which is often presented as a paradise-afterlife. To others, God’s kingdom is more metaphorical — God’s presence with humanity or all of creation (i.e. the kingdom of God draws near when God draws near). Any number of other understandings of Kingdom and salvation can be found between these things. The commonality is that the kingdom of God is somehow distinct from common conceptions of earthly kingdoms.
What Christians generally do agree on is that Jesus is God the Son incarnate as a human being or at least God’s son through the Holy Spirit. That is, there’s usually an assumption of some concept of divinity. This becomes especially important when we get to the resurrection of Jesus; on the third day after being crucified, Jesus rose from the dead. That’s talked about in scripture in three ways:
- Something Jesus did for himself (John 2:18-19; 10:18)
- Something that God the Father did for Jesus (Galatians 1:1)
- Something that the Holy Spirit did for Jesus (1 Peter 3:18)
The mystery of the relationship between Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, especially concerning Jesus’s birth and resurrection, is something that Christians have been trying to articulate for thousands of years. It’s where we get the idea of a trinitarian God — Father, Son, and Spirit who together are one God, but we’ll save that for another post.
Scripture uses many other metaphors to talk about Jesus, such as
- a brother (Mark 3:34-35)
- a friend (John 15:13-15)
- a joint heir or prince (Romans 8:15-17; Isaiah 9:6)
- a shepherd (John 10:11)
- a vine (John 15:1), etc.
The metaphors provide insight into different aspects of Jesus’s relationality and, therefore, God’s relationality. It’s one of the reasons why Jesus is so important to Christianity: because of Jesus’s relationship with God, Jesus reveals aspects of God through his life and teachings. To me, Jesus seems to be the most substantial revelation of God in human history.
The Name of Jesus
The name Jesus is from the Greek name Iesous (Ἰησοῦς), pronounced ee-ay-‘soos. It’s very similar in Latin, Iesus, which is pronounced almost exactly the same way, from what I’ve been told.
The Greek name comes from the Hebrew name Yēšūaʕ, which is often transliterated to Yeshua or Yeshuah and is often pronounced in English as yeh-shoo-uh. I’ve heard that the final sound in the original Hebrew word doesn’t actually exist in English, and apparently, it didn’t exist in Greek, either. Neither did the middle “sh” sound. That’s why some of the sounds disappear from Hebrew to Greek, and we end up with a seemingly different name in English.
This is also why you might hear some people talk about Jesus’s name actually having been “Joshua,” which is probably a more accurate translation from the Hebrew Yeshua. However, English New Testaments are translated from Greek documents, where Jesus is a more accurate translation from Iesous.
Some Christians debate pretty strongly whether the name “Jesus” or the name “Joshua” is the one “by which we must be saved,” (Acts 4:12, NRSV) but in my experience, most Christians don’t take it that literally. We call him Jesus, because that’s how the Greek translates, and that’s the most common name people use around the world.
Teachings of Jesus
Just a quick note that none of this is about the teachings of Jesus, which is a rich topic. I encourage you to explore Jesus’s teachings in the some of the Bible Study and Theology posts (or within other sources, as well); I believe his teachings and how he lived are a big part of why his death and resurrection are significant. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection are all part of his story, so getting to know him requires examining all three.
Even if you don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, I think there’s value in his teachings and encourage you to consider them anyway.