The thrust of my ministry since the late 1980s has figuring out who the historical Jesus was. This is not easy because the New Testament mostly records the writers’ biases, not historical facts. Consequently, I’m constantly looking for information about what life was like back in Jesus’s time so I can place him into that context.
Occasionally, I find a nugget of information that opens new doors for me, such as a December 21, 2018, article by Father James Martin called “How Can You Be Christian without Caring for the Poor?” in the Los Angeles Times.
In John 1:46, when future disciple Nathanael first hears about Jesus, he asks, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Interesting statement! Why would Nathanael say that? Well, back in Jesus’s era, Nazareth was what one might call a hick town, maybe even a shantytown, unimportant and unsophisticated.
For a long time, archeologists had difficulty finding any evidence that Nazareth even existed in Jesus’s day. Then, in 2009, a dig revealed that Nazareth was extant in Jesus’s time.
The village remained a backwater until Constantine (272–337 CE), emperor of the Roman Empire, made Christianity the state religion. His deeply religious mother, Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands at the age of eighty and made Nazareth a sacred site. It then started to grow and today is a major tourist trap known as the Arab capital of Israel, with a population of over seventy-five thousand people (69% Muslim and 31% Christian).
In Jesus’s time, Nazareth was on the fringes of the Roman Empire and of no importance. The Jews who lived there were what one might call ‘throw away people.” They were illiterate, barely scraped by, and owned little to nothing.
The living conditions of the town were described by archeologist Jodi Magness in her book Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit as “filthy, malodorous and unhealthy.” In her chapter about toilets and toilet habits, she graphically describes the streets as open sewers. People publicly defecated and urinated whenever the urge came.
The Greek word for Jesus’s occupation was tekton, meaning not a skilled craftsman but a day laborer who dug ditches, put up mud walls, and built cheap housing. We have no idea how long Jesus worked as a tekton, but it was likely longer than he ministered.
Jesus knew poverty, oppression (from everyone), humility, and destitution. When he preached, he was speaking from intimate knowledge of how awful life could be.
When I see pictures of Jesus as a handsome, well-coiffed man with pink skin and well-kept fingernails dressed in a long, pure white, flowing gown, I see a Jesus who never existed.
Father Martin suggests that the life span of the Nazarenes was about thirty years. Living to the age of sixty was rare. This suggests that Jesus’s mother was probably dead long before Jesus was crucified. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t appear in the Synoptic Gospels’ crucifixion accounts.
When I picture the real, human Jesus rather than the mythical, magical, mysterious one in my mind’s eye, I gain a deeper understanding of the life-changing message of this throwaway Jewish preacher. Mighty armies, wars, and conquest won’t change the world, but the power of agape can.
What does your Jesus look like?