These questions are about technical or specific details to do with the life and teaching of Jesus.
“Jesus” is the English form of “Iesous” (yay-zoose), which is what Jesus is called in the Greek of the New Testament. This in turn is a version of the common Hebrew name “Ieshua”. The Old Testament figure who is called “Joshua” in English has the same name as Jesus.
The name means, “the Lord saves”. According to the birth stories of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke, his parents were told to give him this name by an angel – because “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
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“Christ” is a Greek version of the Hebrew word, “Messiah”. It literally means, “the anointed”, and was a title that the early church applied to Jesus. The first Christians called Jesus “Christos” when they started to talk about their faith in Greek, which was the international language at that time.
But what did they actually mean by “Messiah” or “Christ”?
In the centuries before Jesus’ time, the Jewish people developed a passionate belief in a coming time when things were going to get better for them. First, God would deliver them from foreign rule. There would also be a great spiritual revival.
Part of this hope was belief in a coming Messiah, a man who would be God’s agent in making it happen. He would be anointed in the figurative sense of being chosen by God for the task and the role, as priests and kings were sometimes literally anointed with oil in the Jewish tradition.
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“Gospel” is an old English word meaning “good news”. It is a translation of “euangelion”, a Greek word used in the New Testament, which also, not surprisingly, means “good news”.
The word “gospel” is used in various ways:
1. The message of Jesus – “One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him” (Luke 20:1). We don’t know if “gospel” was a name that Jesus came up with himself, but he certainly seems to have considered his message to be good news.
2. The message that Jesus’s followers preached about him – St Paul wrote: “From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). There is a lot of overlap here, of course, in that much of what these followers preached was repeating Jesus’s own message.
For many Christians today, “Son of God” means “the second person of the Trinity”. The idea is that God is known in three persons – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – but that there is still only one God. Jesus was God the Son come to earth, fully God and fully human.
But is this what the writers of the New Testament meant when they called Jesus the Son of God? Is it what Jesus meant when, and if, he called himself the Son of God?
It is fairly certain that Jesus did talk about God as his father, and about himself as the son. However, it probably wouldn’t have come over as quite such an astonishing claim as it may seem today. Here’s why:
1. Kings and angels are both called sons of God in the Old Testament, so it wouldn’t necessarily mean you’re claiming to be divine.
2. “Son of” didn’t necessarily mean “son of” in the Jewish way of talking. “Son of sin” simply meant a sinner. “Son of the Devil” simply meant someone who followed in the ways of evil. Maybe, therefore, “son of God” could mean someone who is extraordinarily full of the power, love and holiness of God.
On the other hand, when you examine the ways Jesus talks about “my father” and “the son” throughout the Gospels, it is clear that he is claiming a unique relationship with God. In other words, Jesus seems to have made some extraordinary and controversial statements about his relationship with “my father”.
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The New Testament book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church, records the first time when people were called Christians – “There in Antioch the Lord’s followers were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). The word was probably a nickname.
Being a Christian means being devoted to Jesus and trying to follow his teaching. Some Christians would add other qualifications:
Believing the creeds of the church, maybe – though that would exclude more liberal Christians and some of the more radical churches.
Belonging to a church, maybe – though not all Christians accept all churches as true Christian churches, and many people who don’t go to church would call themselves Christians.
Being baptised, maybe – though some churches don’t practice baptism and some people who are baptised don’t practice Christianity.
Believing the Bible, maybe – though Christians tend to disagree profoundly about what the Bible says.
Living a morally upstanding life, maybe – though of course many non-Christians do this too; and just how bad do you have to be to stop being a Christian?
Having a personal experience of Jesus, or having made a personal commitment to Jesus – though different Christians would describe this differently.
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Crucifixion is killing someone by nailing or tying them to a cross and leaving them to die. It was not invented by the Romans, but practised in India, Assyria and Persia before being taken up by Greece and then Rome.
It was an extremely cruel death, often embellished with other punishments, and a shocking spectacle, useful in setting an example to would-be troublemakers. Because of its disgrace it was generally restricted to the lower orders and military or political victims.
It was particularly disgraceful in Jewish culture because of the verse in the law of the Bible that said, “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under the curse of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23).
“Resurrection” means being miraculously raised to life from the dead.
In the case of Jesus, all four of the biblical Gospels present Jesus, in different subtle ways, not merely having come back to life, but having become something strangely different. Most intriguingly, each of the Gospels has a story – different stories in every case – of Jesus’s followers meeting him afterwards and not recognising him, until he did or said something familiar that made the penny drop.
Salvation means being saved. The Jewish people of Jesus’s time talked a lot about the hope of salvation, but this was largely focused on being saved from their Roman enemies.
Jesus also talked about saving people, but not in such political ways. He spoke of saving people from disease, disability and evil spirits – i.e. healing them. When a crooked taxman met Jesus and decided to pay back all the people he had cheated, Jesus said, “Today you and your family have been saved” (Luke 19:9). Jesus also talked about salvation in a more spiritual sense, which seems to mean entering the kingdom of God and being rescued from the guilt and punishment of sin. For example, Jesus said: “I am the gate. All who come inthrough me will be saved. Through me they will come and go and find pasture” (John 10:9).
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Parables are stories told to convey a spiritual point, or to make you think about a spiritual issue.
Parables were a central feature of Jesus’s teaching. There is so little evidence of any other Jewish rabbi using parables before Jesus’ time that he may have invented the parable himself. For this reason, the parables are considered by many scholars to be some of the most historically reliable material in the Gospels. They are not something his followers would naturally have put into his mouth.
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The kingdom of God is an idea that is central to Jesus’s teaching and his life. He announced the coming of the kingdom and called upon his followers to work and pray towards that end. So what does it mean?
“The kingdom of God” is not a phrase Jesus invented. Jewish revolutionaries at the time wanted to throw off imperial Roman rule and get rid of the monarchy, so that there would be no king but God. Many of Jesus’s followers seem to have assumed that he had the same manifesto.
But Jesus clearly had no interest in taking on the Roman army. He called for the people of Israel to become “one nation under God” even under its oppression by Rome, and for his followers to make a start by being a holy community.
For Jesus, the kingdom of God seems to have been more about God ruling in our lives than about who rules the country, and this is one reason why his teaching has made sense around the world – it applies equally to everyone everywhere. In practice, it was a mix of personal spiritual life – such as praying, forgiving, giving, holiness – and social change – such as a new attitude to the excluded, to women, to foreigners and to the poor.
“Now and not yet” is a phrase often used to describe Jesus’s attitude to the kingdom. In one sense he was proclaiming its arrival: the kingdom was coming now through his own life and work, and that of his followers. But there is also a strong sense that he saw the kingdom not only as something that we would always be working towards, but something that would only be fully realised in the world to come.
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When it comes to studying, writing about, or just having opinions about Jesus, we tend to divide people into liberals and traditionalists/conservatives – though of course this covers a whole range of opinions.
The traditionalist tendency sees Jesus as he has been presented by Christian teaching, and sees the Gospels as accurate, reliable accounts of his life. So Jesus is the Son of God, divine, born of a virgin; he performed miracles and rose from the dead.
The liberal tendency sees Jesus as a religious teacher about whom many fantastic stories developed. It attempts to cut through the legendary aspects of the Gospels, and their “unreliable” accounts of his words, to uncover the real Jesus.
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Is there reliable evidence that Jesus ever lived? Was he a great religious teacher… or an alien? Read our Jesus FAQs pages here. If you have a question about the life or teaching of Jesus, check here first to see what’s been posted about it.
Written by Steve Tomkins
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