Jesus is believed by Christians to be the Christ - the Son of God. This article explains what we know about him from history and the Gospels, presents an audio journey through Jesus's life, and explores his legacy in religion, art and cinema.
Last updated 2009-09-17
Jesus is believed by Christians to be the Christ - the Son of God. This article explains what we know about him from history and the Gospels, presents an audio journey through Jesus's life, and explores his legacy in religion, art and cinema.
In this section Mark Goodacre, Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Birmingham, gives a brief biography of Jesus.
We know more about Jesus than we know about many ancient historical figures, a remarkable fact given the modesty of his upbringing and the humility of his death. Jesus did not grow up in one of the great cities of the ancient world like Rome or even Jerusalem but lived in a Galilean village called Nazareth. He died an appalling, humiliating death by crucifixion, reserved by the Romans for the most contemptible criminals.
That such a person could have become so significant in world history is remarkable. But how much can we know with certainty about the Jesus of history? How reliable are the New Testament accounts about him? Opinions vary widely among scholars and students of the Bible.
Our most important resource for the study of Jesus, though, is the literature of early Christianity and especially the Gospels. In order to understand them, it is important to realise that the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense of that word and they often have gaps at just the points where we would like to know more.
They are books with a message, an announcement. They are, for want of a better word, propaganda for the cause of early Christianity. This is why they are called Gospels - a word derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word God spell, from the Greek evangelion: 'good news'. John's Gospel provides a clear example of how the Gospel writers, or evangelists, were thinking about their task.
The Gospel is written not simply to provide information about Jesus but in order to engender faith in him as Messiah and Son of God. This purpose is reflected throughout the Gospels, which are all about the twin themes of Jesus' identity and his work. For the Gospel writers, Jesus was the Messiah who came not only to heal and deliver, but also to suffer and die for people's sins.
If it is important to realise, however, that while the Gospels are similar in purpose, there are some radical differences in content. Most importantly, John differs substantially from the other three, Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels).
Given the similarities in wording and order between the Synoptic Gospels, it is certain that there is some kind of literary link between them. It is usually thought that Mark was the first Gospel to have been written, most likely in the late 60s of the first century AD, at the time of the Jewish war with Rome. It is unparalleled in its urgency, both in its breathless style and in its conviction that Christians were living in the end days, with the kingdom of God about to dawn.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not even have time to include a birth narrative. Instead, he starts with a simple declaration that this is 'The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.' (Mark 1.1). The name Jesus is actually the same name as Joshua in the Old Testament (one is Greek, one is Hebrew) and it means 'God saves'.
It is worth thinking also about the word Christ. This is not Jesus' surname. The Greek-derived Christ is the same word as the Hebrew Messiah and it means Anointed One. In the Old Testament, it is the word used for both priests and kings who were anointed to their office (just as David was anointed by Samuel as King of Israel); it means someone specially appointed by God for a task. By the time that Jesus was on the scene, many Jews were expecting the ultimate Messiah, perhaps a priest, a king or even a military figure, one who was specially anointed by God to intervene decisively to change history.
While the Gospels clearly depict Jesus as having a special relationship with God, do they actually affirm what Christianity later explicitly affirmed, that Jesus is God incarnate, God become flesh? The evidence points in different directions. Mark, the earliest of the four, certainly believes that Jesus is God's Son, but he also includes this extraordinary passage:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
Jesus appears to be distancing himself from God; it is a passage that at least puts a question mark over the idea that Mark would have accepted the doctrine of the incarnation. But the Gospels differ on this point as they do on several others. John, usually thought to be the latest of the four, is the most forthright. He speaks of the role played by the "Word" in creating and sustaining the world in a passage echoing the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
If John's Gospel provides the clearest indication of early Christian belief in the incarnation, it is at least clear that the other Gospels believe that in Jesus God is present with his people in a new and decisive way. Right at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, before Jesus has been born, we are told:
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
The Gospels narrate the story of how God's relationship with human beings manifested itself in Jesus' life and death. These books are therefore not just about Jesus' identity (who Jesus is) but also about his work (what Jesus did). There are three key areas of Jesus' activity, his healing, his preaching and his suffering.
Whatever one thinks about the historicity of the events described in the Gospels, and there are many different views, one thing is not in doubt: Jesus had an overwhelming impact on those around him. The Gospels speak regularly of huge crowds following Jesus. Perhaps they gathered because of his reputation as a healer. Perhaps they gathered because of his ability as a teacher. Whatever the cause, it seems likely that the authorities' fear of the crowd was a major factor leading to Jesus' crucifixion. In a world where there was no democracy, mobs represented a far greater threat to the Romans' rule than anything else.
Yet in spite of Jesus' popularity during his lifetime, the early Christian movement after Jesus' death was only a small group with a tiny power base in Jerusalem, a handful of Jesus' closest followers who stayed loyal to Jesus' legacy because they were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, that he had died for everyone's sins, and that he was raised from the dead. It was a movement that received its greatest boost when the most unlikely figure joined it, the apostle Paul.
The Gospels are a form of ancient biography and are very short. They take about an hour and a half, two hours to read out loud. They're not what we understand modern biography to be: the great life and times of somebody in multi volume works. They've got between ten and twenty thousand words and ancient biography doesn't waste time on great background details about where the person went to school or all the psychological upbringing that we now look for in our kind of post-Freudian age.
They tend to go straight to the person's arrival on the public scene, often 20 or 30 years into their lives, and then look at the two or three big key things that they did or the big two or three key ideas. They'll also spend quite a lot of time concentrating on the actual death because the ancients believe that you couldn't sum up a person's life until you saw how they died. In their death, very often, they would die as they lived and then they would conclude with the events after the death - very often on dreams or visions about the person and what happened to their ideas afterwards.
The four gospels are four angles on one person and in the four gospels there are four angles on the one Jesus. It was a wonderful insight of the early Fathers, guided by the spirit of God, who recognised that these four pictures all reflect upon the same person. It's like walking into a portrait gallery and seeing four portraits, say, of Winston Churchill: the statesman or the war leader or the Prime Minister or the painter or the family man.
Of course we actually have to do all sorts of historical critical analysis and try to get back to what this tells us about the historical Jesus. It also shows us the way in which the early church tried to make that one Jesus relevant and to apply him to the needs of their own people of that day, whether they were Jews as in Matthew's case or Gentiles as in Luke's case and so on. And so those four portraits give us a challenge and a stimulus today to actually try to work out how we can actually tell that story of the one Jesus in different ways that are relevant for the needs of people today.
Reverend Dr Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College London and Lecturer in New Testament Studies
Christology is literally 'words about the Christ.' It refers to perspectives on Jesus that indicate he was more than a mere mortal. Christology can involve the humanity of Jesus, but there is often a special focus on the fact that he is more than merely a mortal person, he is divine in some way and in some sense the different gospel writers come at this somewhat differently. The synoptics - Matthew, Mark and Luke - have more a similar point of view than what you find in the Gospel of John which stands apart and alone. But none the less, they are all interested in this matter, they are certainly interested in what we would call Christology.
The Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, begins 'This is the good news about Jesus the Christ the son of God'. Right from the very outset of this gospel he is presenting a particular theological interpretation of Jesus as the Messiah, as the divine son of God and he is going to pursue that agenda throughout his gospel and reveal those truths about him. In Mark, at the the climax of the first part of the ministry and Peter stands up and says, 'you are the Christ, the son of God'.
There's certainly a Christological agenda in all these books, even in the earliest gospel. There really isn't a non-Christological Jesus to be found under any of the rocks in the gospel; so thoroughly are our gospel writers concerned about that issue, that the portraits in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all Christological through and through.
Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky
It's difficult to know how much of what's written in the Gospels is an insight into how Jesus saw himself and how much is comment of other people as to how they saw Jesus. In John's gospel for example, there are many 'I am' sayings: 'I am the light of the world', 'I am the good shepherd', 'I am the bread', 'I am the vine'. These phrases, if they came from the lips of Jesus, don't tell us a great deal about his spiritual biography, but tell us more about his purpose and they kind of hang with you and you have to think them through.
What does it mean that Jesus is the shepherd, what does it mean that Jesus is the light, what does it mean that Jesus is the bread of life? And you have to kind of puzzle over them. I don't think Jesus was interested in giving a great deal of information about himself. I mean, Jesus said that whoever saw him, saw the Father. But I don't think he was very interested in padding that out; his mission was more to redeem people, to love people into goodness, to save people from the distress and errors of their ways and he doesn't make a big issue about himself.
There's that whole thing in the gospels of Matthew and Mark about how he's very wary of people nailing him as the Messiah. He does that sometimes because I think he wants to approach everybody on an equal basis, if he comes with his entourage and a lot of hype about himself, he'll not be able to relate to folk, they'll stand in awe of him rather than relate to him.
Reverend John Bell, leader in the Iona Community and minister of the Church of Scotland
I think Jesus thought of himself very much as a healer - he saw healing as a key to his work and presumably this arose because he just found out he was able to do it. A lot of Jews in this period would have prayed for people for healing and Jesus must have done this and found that actually he was rather good at it and he had a real reputation for healing and that might have led him to Old Testament scriptures like Isaiah 35, that talks about healing in end days - maybe he thought that that was a sign that the end of days was on its way.
Did Jesus think of himself as a teacher? Probably he did. Nobody spends that much time standing up and teaching crowds of people such words that have stuck with us for centuries. Even people like Gandhi were inspired by it so it's not just Christians that are inspired by that. But I think if we limit Jesus to purely teaching and healing than we don't get the full measure of him.
I think he would also have seen himself as a prophet. There are real signs that he sees himself in continuity with Old Testament prophets and just as Old Testament prophets were persecuted and suffered, Jesus thought that was likely to be his end too. He saw himself as following a line of prophets that had suffered for what they believed and sometimes even suffered from the hands of their own people as well as from others.
The big question about Jesus is: did Jesus think of himself as Messiah, did he believe he was the distinctive person that had a really pivotal role to play in God's plan? Scholars are divided about this. I personally think that Jesus did think of himself as a Messiah, he did think that God had specifically anointed him to do his work and that he had a special task for him to do. He also was convinced that he had to suffer as part of God's plan and this caused controversy with his disciples. It seems that Jesus wanted to push the idea that he was going to suffer and his disciples were really worried about this idea, probably expecting Jesus either to be some sort of priestly Messiah or some sort of warrior Messiah but certainly not a Messiah that would end up on a cross. They saw this as hugely problematic and a lot of Christians said for years afterwards that this was still a stumbling block to many people, a scandal - the idea that the Jewish Messiah could be crucified. This just didn't make sense to a lot of people.
Mark Goodacre, Senior Lecturer in New Testament, University of Birmingham
Edward Stourton presents a journey in the footsteps of Jesus. Four programmes, showing four completely different understandings of Jesus, explore the man, his image and his message.
This first episode looks at the essentials of what can really be said about Jesus with any degree of historical certainty and places him in the context of the wandering charismatics and faith healers who were about at the time.
It also explores how his Jewish roots were gradually airbrushed out of theology, culminating in Nazi theologians who produced a Bible excised of all references to Judaism and who portrayed Jesus as an Aryan.
It's only really modern scholarship, if you want to call it that, that's begun to say "Well hold on a minute. He was not a Christian, He was not born a Christian, he didn't live a Christian - He didn't even know what the term 'Christian' meant. Jesus was a Jew."
With the crucifixion we move from the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith. But how aware was Jesus of his destiny? And at what point does Jesus the Messiah break away from his Jewish roots?
All the lines converge back on the fact that there must've been an empty tomb... and that there must've been sightings of some sort of being, a figure, a person who they knew to be Jesus, and who they knew to be not a ghost. They knew all about ghosts and visions and so on - that, that wasn't anything out of the ordinary. People had that sort of experience. This was different - this was bodily, but it was a transformed body. It wasn't a resuscitation - they believed Jesus had gone through death and out the other side, into a new physical body, which was now equally physical - only if anything more so rather than less so. He wasn't a ghost, He was alive, and the only way I can make sense of that as a historian is by saying that it actually happened.
Tom Wright, author of Who was Jesus? and The Resurrection of the Son of God
When the Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision of Jesus just before his victorious battle for Rome it was arguably one of the most important moments in the history of the West.
It was the start of the process whereby Christianity would go from a persecuted minority to the official religion of the largest Empire the world had seen. But how did that change Jesus and His message?
We wanna say "Come on guys - live in the real world. Things have moved on. Take all your ideals and translate them into the new world" - and that's what the Christians struggled to do.
Tom Wright, theologian and Bishop of Durham
Christ, a historical Christ that you have referred to as a Jewish peasant, was not in the forefront of their minds. They were thinking of Christ as Saviour and Christ who died for our sins. This is what Christ was to them at that time. And in fact their concentration was in all of the phases of His Passion.
Iris Carulli, art historian
This final journey in the footsteps of Jesus reaches what could be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world; in Kerala on the southwest coast of India, where in around 52AD the Apostle Thomas is said to have landed with the news of the Gospel.
But it's also the place where the Jesus who is so much a part of European culture meets new worlds and new cultures and where the belief that he has a message for all humanity is really tested.
In our western, traditional understanding of Jesus, the person of Jesus is very much objectified. He's the Lord, the Saviour, the great, divine Tao whom we worship in liturgy for instance, whom we listen to as the great saviour and teacher...
Reflecting on the mystery of Christ in India... Jesus Christ the sub-divine subject of our being more than an object of worship. This becomes very clear when we compare the traditional, western, Christian understanding of Jesus Christ which emphasises then 'I - Tao' relationship and the Indian vedandic approach where an 'I -I' relationship. In oth...in other words er, er Christ is my true self within me - this is the Vedantic Christology.
Sebastian Painadath, Jesuit priest in Kerala
Apart from being an inspirational leader and teacher, the Gospels describe many miraculous feats performed by Jesus. They can sound unbelievable today, but what would they have meant to first-century Jews?
The miracle of the raising of the widow's son takes place in the village of Nain in Galilee. Jesus arrives in Nain on the occasion of a funeral when he is approached by a widow whose only son has died. When Jesus brings the man back to life the crowd are astonished, but what delights them more than this triumph over death is the meaning of the miracle.
The miracle reminds them of the great Jewish prophet Elijah who, eight centuries earlier, had also raised the only son of a widow in a town in Galilee. Elijah was famous as a miracle worker and as a prophet who rebuked those Jews who under the influence of pagan idolatry had strayed from devotion to God. Elijah never died - he was transported to heaven in a chariot of fire.
The parallels between Jesus and Elijah were hugely significant. At the time the Jews were longing for an end to Roman oppression and the return of the kingdom of God - a new age in which peace, freedom, righteousness, faithfulness and the rule of God would prevail. The first stage in that road to salvation was the arrival of a prophet who - like Elijah - would rail against sin. Maybe Jesus was that prophet - maybe even a reincarnation of Elijah?
The Gospels repeatedly make the link between Jesus and Elijah:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
Clearly though, the Gospel writers believed Jesus was more than a prophet. In Matthew 17:10-13 (and Mark 9:12-13), just after the transfiguration,
The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
The resonances between Jesus and Elijah would have been striking to first century Jews and to Christians familiar with the Old Testament. But as Christianity spread into the Roman Empire, the miracle of the raising of the widow's son acquired other meanings. The most important is that it prefigured Jesus' own resurrection. In fact the miracle in Nain is one of three times when Jesus raises the dead. He also raises Jairus' daughter (Matthew 9:18-25, Mark 5:22-42, Luke 8:41-56) and his friend Lazarus (John 11:1-44). But there was a key difference between these miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. The widow's son, Jairus' daughter and Lazarus were resuscitated or revived: they would eventually die again. Jesus on the other hand would live forever. His resurrection entailed a complete transformation in his body and spirit, a complete victory over death.
When Jesus arrives in a deserted and remote area to preach to a crowd of 5000, he is told that the people are hungry. They discuss whether to go back to the villages to get food, but it's getting late, so instead Jesus asks the disciples to order the crowd to sit in groups of fifties and hundreds, and to gather what food is available. All they manage to collect is five loaves and two fishes. But Jesus works a miracle and there is enough to feed the multitude, so much so there are twelve basketfuls of leftovers.
The ancient meaning of this miracle would have been clear to the disciples and the crowd. Jesus had acted like Moses, the father of the Jewish faith. In every respect, the miracle echoed Moses and his miracle in the Sinai wilderness when he fed the multitude of Hebrews. Moses had left Ramesses on the fertile lands of the Nile Delta, crossed a sea - the Red Sea - and headed east towards a deserted area - the Sinai wilderness. Jesus had left Bethesda on the fertile lands of the Jordan Delta, crossed a sea - the Sea of Galilee - and headed east towards a deserted and remote area - the Golan Heights on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus orders the crowd to sit in fifties and hundreds he is echoing Moses the general who often ordered the Hebrews to sit in squares of fifty and one hundred. In the Sinai, Moses fed a multitude with quails and manna, the bread of heaven; in the Golan Heights Jesus fed a multitude with fish and bread. In both miracles there were basketfuls of leftovers.
To first-century Jews the miracle of the loaves and fishes signalled that Jesus was like Moses. The reason is that in Jewish minds, Moses was a role model for the Messiah. The Jews were praying for a saviour to come and free them from foreign oppression. They believed he would be someone like Moses who had freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Maybe Jesus was the leader they were waiting for? The crowd certainly thought so - after the miracle, the crowd try to crown Jesus king of the Jews there and then.
After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus tells the disciples to head back to the fishing village of Bethsaida whilst he retires to the mountain to pray on his own. Later that night, the disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee and making little progress against the strong wind when they suddenly see Jesus walking on the water. At first they think it's a ghost, but Jesus reassures them, telling them - 'Take heart, it is I! Do not be afraid!' Then Jesus joins the disciples on the boat.
The miracle of the walking on water is best understood in the context of the previous miracle. The feeding of the 5000 would have reminded the disciples of Moses and the Exodus. The miracle of the walking on water would have reminded them of the climax to the Exodus - Joshua and the conquest of the land of Canaan. After wandering for 40 years in the wilderness Moses led the Israelites to the eastern shores of the river Jordan to prepare for the conquest. But Moses died on Mt Nebo before he could begin the invasion. His mission was accomplished by his right man Joshua.
Jesus' miracle of the walking on water would have reminded the disciples of Joshua. Like Joshua, Jesus was crossing waters. Ahead of Joshua was the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments carried by twelve priests. That scene was inverted and echoed on the Sea of Galilee; ahead of Jesus was a different kind of ark - the wooden boat, carrying the twelve disciples. But the biggest similarity between the two was in their names: Jesus is the Latin for the Hebrew name Joshua.
In the Jewish mindset of the time, Joshua was another role model for the Messiah - the flipside of Moses. Whereas Moses had freed the Israelites from oppression, it was Joshua who had finished the job by conquering the Promised Land for them. At the time of Jesus, the Jews were looking for a Messiah would not only free them from foreign oppression (as Moses had done), but someone who would also reclaim Judea and Galilee and restore it to the rule of God. In both the miracles of the loaves and fishes and the walking on water, Jesus seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
But the miracle of the walking on water had many other meanings, especially in that difficult period from the middle of the first century onwards when early Christianity faced hostility and persecution from Imperial tyrants. The sea miracle functioned as a metaphor for the precarious situation in which Christian churches found themselves - especially in Rome. To many Christians the Church must have felt like the fishing boat on the sea of Galilee, buffeted by strong winds and rocked by the waves. They must also have felt that Jesus had left them alone on the boat to fend for themselves. At best he was a ghostly appearance. But the message of the miracle is that they should 'take heart' and not be 'afraid': Jesus had not abandoned them, he was with them. It was a message which helped Christians endure persecution through the centuries.
Jesus and his mother Mary are invited to a wedding in the Galilean town of Cana. Jewish wedding feasts lasted all week and everyone in the village was invited, so it's not surprising that the hosts' wine is said to run out. Jesus asks one of the servants to fill the large water jars with water, and soon there is plenty of wine again.
The miracle would have carried many messages. When the Jewish scriptures looked forward to the kingdom of God, they used a number of metaphors to describe it. One of the most frequently used images is that of a marriage. The Book of Isaiah says:
Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame... For your Maker is your husband... The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit - a wife who married young, only to be rejected.
Another key image is that of a banquet overflowing with a superabundance of wine.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine - the best of meats and the finest of wines.
"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "when ... new wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. I will bring back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine."
The Gospels contain records of over 35 miracles and of these the majority were healings of the lame, the deaf and the blind, exorcism of those possessed by demons.
The meaning of the healings and exorcisms is best understood against the background of Jewish purity laws which stipulated that those deemed impure could not enter the sacred precinct of the Temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifice to God. The Jewish scriptures tell us that the impure included the lame, the sick, the blind and those possessed by demons. By implication, such people could not under Jewish law enter the Kingdom of God.
In healing the sick and casting out demons Jesus was sending a powerful signal - that they were now able to fulfill their obligations as Jews, and by implication that they were now entitled to enter the Kingdom of God. The fact that the cures are done by Jesus himself carried a further layer of meaning - that Jesus had the authority to decide who could enter the Kingdom of God. This becomes explicit in the healing of the paralysed man in Capernaum. Jesus heals the man by forgiving his sin - an act that would have been considered a blasphemy by Jews: only God had the authority to forgive sins. By forgiving sins Jesus was acting with an authority that the Jews believed only God possessed.
In the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter Jesus goes a step further and effectively signals that Gentiles too are eligible to enter the Kingdom of God. Authors have applied this first-century meaning of the miracle to modern life.
Jesus and the disciples were on one of their many trips on the Sea of Galilee, when the Gospels say they were hit by an unexpected and violent storm. The disciples were struggling for their lives. But by comparison Jesus' reaction is bewildering. He's said to have been asleep. And when awoken, his response couldn't have been less reassuring. "Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?"
But what the disciples didn't know was that they were about to receive help in a way they could never have imagined. Jesus stood up and rebuked the wind and sea. The disciples must have wondered who on earth Jesus was: this man who appeared able to control the elements. But just as with other miracles, what amazed them wasn't what Jesus did, it was what it revealed about his identity. They would have known the ancient Jewish prophecies which said very clearly, there was only one person who had the power to control the stormy seas - God.
One passage from the Book of the Psalms recalls an occasion where God had shown his power to save his people from distress in exactly the same way as Jesus had on the Sea of Galilee - by stilling a storm. The similarities wouldn't have been lost on the disciples. Jesus' actions seemed to suggest that he had the power of God himself.
Later in the century this miracle took on a new meaning - a meaning that would resonate down the centuries. The Gospel writers saw that the miracles could speak directly to the Christians suffering persecution in Rome. Like that boat in peril, the Christians in Rome might well have feared that their Church was in danger of sinking. And like Jesus asleep on the boat, they might have worried that Jesus had forgotten them. But the message of the evangelists was this: if they had faith in Jesus, he would not abandon them; he could calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee or in Rome.
The belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead became the foundation of the early Christian Church. What the early Christians made of the resurrection can be gleaned from the letters of St Paul, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. It is a complex picture: did the early Christians believe that Jesus had undergone a spiritual or physical resurrection? The earliest sources are the letters of St Paul. His belief in the resurrection of Jesus is based on a vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Like the letters of St Paul, the Gospel writers also report appearances of Jesus to the disciples. But the evangelists also report the story of the empty tomb - the discovery of the disappearance of the corpse of Jesus from his tomb on the third day after his crucifixion. The clear implication from this account is that the early Christians took Jesus to have been physically raised from the dead.
That in itself would have been hailed as a miracle. But a series of religious experiences convinced the early Christians that the resurrection meant much more than that. First, Jesus was the divine son of God. The Acts of the Apostles reports that during the feast of Pentecost the disciples were gathered together when they heard a loud noise like a wind from heaven, and saw tongues of fire descend on them. The Bible says they were filled with the Holy Spirit - and they took that as a sign that Jesus had been resurrected by God. The experience brought about a sudden and powerful transformation in the disciples. Until then Jesus had been a memory. Now for the first time Jesus became the focus of something unprecedented. A new faith flickered into life, a faith that worshipped Jesus as the son of God.
Another meaning attached to the miracle of the resurrection is that it conferred eternal life to Christians. At the time Jews believed that there would be an after-life - but only at the very end of time. Some Jews believed that at the last judgement the dead would be resurrected, and that it would begin in the cemetery on the Mt of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem. But the dead would have to wait an eternity before they could taste resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything. There was no need to wait for the last judgement. If Jesus could conquer death so could others. All one had to do is commit completely to Jesus and follow his path. This would be the new way to an eternal life.
This meaning gave the early Christians - and Christians throughout history - the strength to endure suffering. The Romans executed thousands of Christian martyrs but the resurrection of Jesus gave people renewed hope. If his resurrection signified victory over death - if it meant eternal life - then death could hold no terror. Because of what the resurrection symbolised, Christian martyrs like St Peter and St Paul were fearless in the face of such persecution.
In this 2002 broadcast Dr Mark Goodacre, Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Ed Kessler, executive director of the centre for Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge, discussed the historical evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus with Prof Daryl Schmidt (now deceased), former Professor of New Testament at Texas Christian University and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
In 2008 Professor Gary Habermas, one of the USA's most respected philosophers, gave an interview to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. He talks about his claim that there's historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
Neil McGregor, Director of the British Museum, surveys the face of Jesus portrayed in art, starting with what may well be the earliest image there is: a mosaic from a Roman villa in Dorset.
How has cinema developed the representation of Jesus?
Father Peter Malone, President of the World Catholic Association for Communications, considers how directors have portrayed Jesus and the crucifixion.
The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann and Richard Bauckham, pub. SCM Classics (2001)
The gospels and Jesus, Graham N Stanton, pub. OUP (2002)
The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic literature, Tarif Khalidi, pub. Harvard University Press (2001)
The parables of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias, pub. SCM Press (2003)
The new illustrated companion to the Bible: Old Testament, New Testament, the life of Jesus, Early Christianity, Jesus in Art, J R Porter, pub. Duncan Baird Publishers (2003)
The historical figure of Jesus, E P Sanders, pub Penguin (1995)
Introduction to New Testament Christology, Raymond E, SS Brown, pub. Continuum International Publishing Group (1994)
The shadow of the Galilean, Gerd Theissen and James D G Dunn, pub. SCM Press (2001)