The Jesus FAQs

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How did Jesus live

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These questions look at the life of Jesus, including his birth, marital status and miracles.

Was Jesus born in the year zero?

It’s unlikely. For a start there isn’t a year zero between the years 1 and -1, because when the date was set, there was no concept of the number zero. The BC/AD calendar was created in 531 by a monk called Dennis. He calculated that Jesus was born in the year 754 of the Roman calendar, so that became 1 BC. But he miscalculated.

The only information we have about when precisely Jesus was born is from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. They both put his birth in the reign of Herod the Great of Judea, who died about the Roman year 751, i.e. 4 BC. This seems to give us the latest date Jesus could have been born.

However, Luke says: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). This only complicates matter further, because records show that Quirinius was made governor of Syria and Judea in the Roman year 757 (AD 6), and took a census the following year.

There are various theories that try to tie up these two conflicting bits of information, but none of them puts Jesus’s birth in 1 BC (or in the year 0). The most commonly accepted date is 4 BC.
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Was Jesus’s mother really a virgin when he was born?

This is a question that no amount of poking about in historical documents is going to answer. Your answer will depend on what you already believe about other questions: miracles, the authority of the church, the Bible…

Two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, tell the story of Jesus’s birth and they agree that Mary was a virgin, and her pregnancy was the miraculous work of God. And the creed spoken in churches every Sunday affirms: “He was born of the Virgin Mary”.

On the other hand, the letters of St Paul – which were written before the Gospels – say nothing at all about the virgin birth. This, some say, suggests that legendary stories about Jesus’s birth grew up later on, between the time of Paul and the writing of Matthew and Luke. It must be added, though, that Paul says astonishingly little about any aspect of Jesus’s life, so this on its own is a weak argument.

However, it was common practice in the ancient world to add miraculous births to the legends of great men, from prophets to emperors, so if you’re not predisposed to believe the biblical stories, you can see where they might have come from.

The answer is, then, that if you’re a fairly traditional Christian (or a Muslim), you would be likely to accept that Jesus’s mother was a virgin. If you don’t already believe in the traditional stories of Jesus for other reasons, then you probably won’t believe this either.
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Was there a star or comet at the time of Jesus’s birth?

It’s safe to say there were plenty of stars. As for the star of the Christmas story, the gospel of Matthew says: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

There are various astronomical events on record that have been associated with this:

> a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC
> a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 3 BC
> a supernova in 4 or 5 BC
> Halley’s comet in 12 BC

However, the story in Matthew says that once the Magi were in Judea, “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). It seems that Matthew has in mind a supernatural phenomenon, rather than a well-timed astronomical event.
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Why weren’t there any women disciples of Jesus?

There were. If a disciple was someone who followed Jesus, listened to his teaching and accompanied him in his mission, he had plenty of women disciples, and many appear by name in the Gospels, some quite prominently. This was unusual in Jesus’s culture, but he emphatically welcomed women as his followers.

Having said that, there was an inner group of followers known as “the Twelve”. They were a group of disciples whom Jesus called specially. None of the Gospels explain what they were set apart for, or on what basis Jesus chose them. Presumably they were expected to represent him, lead his other followers (especially after his death), and to preach an authoritative version of his message.

Why were they all men? Jesus never explained why. But then no one would have asked. They would only have asked why (or rather “what?!”) if he had appointed women.

The fact is that the society Jesus was living and working in was an extremely patriarchal society. His attitude to women was radically liberating and affirming, but it’s unreasonable to expect him to act exactly as if he was living in the 21st-century West.
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Was Jesus ever married?

Well, none of the Gospels explicitly say that he wasn’t, though it’s hardly the kind of thing they would say: “And Jesus, who was a single man, said unto the crowds, ‘Verily verily…’”

There’s a recurrent myth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene that shifts big shock-horror paperbacks every so often, but there’s no real evidence for it. The family members of other characters in the Gospel stories are mentioned (for example, Peter’s mother in law), but since there is no wife or family of Jesus mentioned in any of the Gospels or other early records, it seems best to assume Jesus was not married.
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Was Mary Magdalene Jesus’s girlfriend?

Jesus and Mary Magdalene are often romantically linked in books, and also in Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ. What is the evidence for their involvement?

1. Jesus was (so far as we know) single.
2. Mary was one of Jesus’ disciples.
3. She may have been a former prostitute (some of Jesus’ followers certainly were).
4. Err…
5. That’s it.
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Did Jesus really walk on water?

Apart from Jesus’s death and resurrection, the occasion when Jesus fed 5,000 people and then walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee is the most well attested event of his life (see John 6:1-21).

But of course all questions of miracles come down to your personal beliefs. If you believe that Jesus was someone who was capable of miracles (or that miracles can happen), then you’re pretty much bound to accept this story as authentic. If you don’t believe that Jesus was someone who was capable of miracles (or that miracles can never happen), then of course you won’t believe this.

It is, as they say, your call.
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What miracles are said to have been done by Jesus?

A lot. Most commonly, according to the Gospels, he travelled around northern Palestine healing the sick and casting evil spirits out of people. He cured leprosy, paralysis, blindness, deafness and dumbness, among other conditions, and on three occasions raised the dead.

There are also a number of miracles reported that showed his command over nature as well as the human body, including walking on water, calming a storm, turning water into wine and multiplying a few loaves and fishes to feed 5,000 people. Probably the oddest miracle story of the biblical Gospels concerns a fig tree which Jesus cursed for having no figs (which was a bit hard, because it wasn’t the season for figs anyway). When Jesus and the disciples passed the tree on the day following the curse, the tree had “withered from the roots” (Mark11:20).

In the later “Gospels” which were never accepted into the canon of the New Testament, there is no end to the number – or the extravagance – of the miracles attributed to Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are a wonder of self-restraint in comparison.

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About this module

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

Categories: Story, Articles,


Module contents

arrow Introduction

arrow Some definitions

arrow What's the evidence

arrow Who was Jesus

arrow What did Jesus teach

arrow What did Jesus say about

arrow How did Jesus live

arrow How and why did Jesus die

arrow What about the resurrection

arrow What about Jesus today

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