Nothing is known of the life of Jesus other than what is recorded in the four Gospels, written down some fifty to eighty years after his death. No trace of him survives in any contemporary historical record. Nevertheless the Gospels, based on a continuous oral tradition deriving from those who knew him, contain more detail than can be assembled about anyone else of comparable obscurity in his own time.
The evidence of the Gospels suggests that Jesus is born in about 6 BC - revealing an initial error in the chronology of the Christian era.
Luke is the only evangelist to tell the story of Mary and Joseph travelling south from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. The reason for the journey is that the Roman emperor has ordered a census of the population, and Joseph - descended in the story from King David - must register in his ancestral home near Jerusalem. In Luke's account the birth takes place in a stable, because there is no room in the inn. Local shepherds, alerted by an angel, come to the stable to marvel at the child.
Joseph and Mary then take the infant to Jerusalem, to be presented in the Temple, before returning to Nazareth where Jesus has a peaceful childhood.
Matthew, the only other evangelist to deal with the birth and infancy of Jesus, tells an entirely different and much more troubled story. Three wise men of the east, or Magi, follow a star which leads them to Bethlehem. Unfortunately they tell Herod, king of Palestine, that they are on their way to see the newly born King of the Jews. To eliminate his rival, Herod orders the massacre of all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two.
An angel warns Joseph, telling him to escape with his family to Egypt. After Herod's death another angel tells them that it is safe to return home. There is some evidence of a census in 6 BC and Herod dies in 4 BC. So the two separate accounts, put together, imply a birth date of around 6 BC.
The Virgin Mary:
Apart from her role in these nativity stories, Jesus's mother barely features in the Gospel accounts of his life. When he is twelve, Mary rebukes her son for disappearing for three days (he has gone to debate with the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem). At the marriage in Cana, she points out to him that there is no wine and receives the reply 'Your concern, mother, is not mine'. When she tries to see him among his disciples, he turns her away with the explanation that they, not she, now constitute his family. And from the Cross he entrusts her to the care of his disciple John.
These few details are a thin basis for the cult of the Virgin Mary. But Christian art and devotion would be immeasurably poorer without her.
The ministry of Jesus: AD c.29-33:
Scholars variously argue that Jesus's ministry lasts as little as one year or as many as four. There is greater certainty about its starting date. It begins when he is baptized by John the Baptist, an event which Luke places in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, or AD 29. John is an ascetic, similar in attitude to the Essenes. He preaches the urgent need for repentance to prepare for imminent divine judgement. Jesus too will preach that the kingdom of God is at hand, but his own ministry is less removed than John's from the everyday world of the villages and towns of Palestine.
Jesus soon acquires followers. The Gospels suggest that a major cause of his appeal is his apparent ability to work miracles - particularly miracles of healing.
A group of followers emerge as Jesus's regular companions. These are his disciples, listed in the Gospels as twelve in number. The exact names vary in different accounts, but three are clearly his most trusted inner circle - Peter, and the brothers James and John. All are fishermen, working on the sea of Galilee until their call to join Jesus. Peter emerges as the leader. The idea that Jesus sees him as the leader of a future church (and therefore, with hindsight, the first pope) is based on a passage in Matthew's Gospel (xvi, 16-19).
Jesus says to him: 'You are Peter, and on this rock (petros in Greek) I will build my church... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven'.
The last week: AD c.33:
Most of Jesus's ministry takes place in Galilee, but in a climax of enthusiasm he and his followers move triumphantly into Jerusalem just before the festival of the Passover. Galilee is a known centre of resistance to Roman rule at a time of increasing political unrest. And the preaching of Jesus has been critical of the Jewish authorities, the Sadducees and Pharisees. His arrival is not likely to be welcomed by those in power.
Any crowd of people in a state of excitement is alarming to the authorities, and Jesus's actions do little to reassure them. He smashes the stalls of the traders in the courtyard of the Temple, and prophesies the imminent destruction of this most holy building.
It seems inevitable that he will be arrested and punished. Indeed in Christian terms it is essential that he should be - for he has come, his followers later believe, to make the ultimate sacrifice of his own life, which will somehow redeem the sins of mankind.
Jesus has a last supper with his disciples. The implication is that it is the Jewish ritual meal of Pesach or Passover. He breaks bread for them, offers them wine, and specifically - in the Gospel account - associates these with his body and blood, soon to be spilt in his sacrifice. The Eucharist, the central sacrament of the Christian church, is established (see Sacraments).
After supper Jesus goes to pray in the garden of Gethsemane, where Judas Iscariot - the traitor among the disciples - brings his enemies to arrest him. The Temple priests charge him with blasphemy and demand that the Romans, the civil authorities, put him to death. With some reluctance, Pontius Pilate condemns him to crucifixion - a barbarous form of Roman execution reserved for agitators, pirates and slaves.
With the details of the Resurrection - the empty tomb, the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden and to the disciples on the road to Emmaus - the Gospel account of Jesus becomes the story of the Christians.