Jesus of Nazareth—Who Really Was He?
“TO THIS by no means rhetorical question there are at least as many answers as there are books about him, and of them there is a host.” Thus replied a leading European newspaper to the question, “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?”
Adding to the confusion is the differing representations of Jesus in literature and motion pictures. As one writer pointed out, Jesus has been variously portrayed as a “fierce champion of the oppressed,” a “crucified clown,” a “befuddled mystic,” and a “well-intentioned charlatan.” But who really was he?
How to Find Out
References to Jesus by ancient secular historiansa are numerous enough to prove his existence, but they offer little additional information about him. “It is therefore impossible,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica, “to write a biography of Jesus in the conventional sense of the word.” And, speaking of the Bible accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, it adds: “Many a modern student has become so preoccupied with conflicting theories about Jesus and the Gospels that he has neglected to study these basic sources by themselves.”
We need not make the same mistake. We have ready access to these “basic sources,” the writers of which were either intimate associates of Jesus or personal associates of those who were. No evidence has ever been unearthed that successfully calls into question the truthfulness of the men who wrote these Gospel accounts about Jesus. Rather, the contrary has been true. As Sir Isaac Newton, the famous scientist, once said: “I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane history whatever.” The 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote: “Shall we suppose the evangelic history a mere fiction? . . . On the contrary, the history of Socrates, which nobody presumes to doubt, is not so well attested as that of Jesus Christ.”
It would therefore be wise to view the previously mentioned descriptions of Jesus in the light of the Bible record. And reasoning as to whether these are Scriptural views of him will help us determine who Jesus of Nazareth really was.
Was Jesus God?
Many Catholics and Protestants say that Jesus was God himself, “very God of very God, . . . of one substance with the Father.” This belief they base on the Nicene Creed, adopted by the minority of bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.
But consider: While it is true that Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), he also prayed that his followers might “be one,” saying, “Just as you, Father, are in union with me and I am in union with you, that they also may be in union with us.” (John 17:21) Would this indicate oneness of person or, rather, oneness of purpose?
And while it is true that Jesus said, “He that has seen me has seen the Father also” (John 14:9), it is also true what Paul wrote of Jesus, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creatures.” (Colossians 1:15, The New American Bible, Catholic) When someone says that a man’s firstborn son is the “spitting image” of his father, does he mean that he thinks that they are the same person, or only that he thinks they are extremely alike in looks and character?
If Jesus was “very God of very God,” why did he say, “The Father is greater than I”? (John 14:28, NAB) Why did he say to God, “Not my will but yours be done” unless they were two distinct persons with separate wills?—Luke 22:42, NAB.
Just an Ordinary Man?
Many modernists disagree with the “very God of very God” view of Jesus. A former West German Lutheran minister, for example, said that Jesus was a normal man with good things to say who was later glorified into the Son of God by early Christians. If Jesus were just an ordinary man, how do we account for his documented ability to control the elements, to heal the sick and even to raise the dead? (See Matthew 8:23-27; 9:18-26; Mark 8:22-26.) How do we account for his ability to prophesy things that happened many years after his death, in fact even events that are occurring today? (See Matthew, chapter 24 and Luke, chapter 21.) And if early Christians glorified Jesus into the Son of God at a later time, how can we account for John the Baptizer exclaiming at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “I have borne witness that this one is the Son of God”?—John 1:34; see also Matthew 16:15, 16.
Maybe you feel that the truth about Jesus lies somewhere in between the two views discussed above. Many Unitarians, for example, believe that Jesus was “not the pre-existent Son of God but a mere man . . . , ‘adopted’ by God at his baptism when he received the divine power . . . to enable him to fulfill his mission of redemption.” Theodotus of Byzantium advanced this idea during the last part of the second century C.E.
However, if Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, why does Luke 3:23 say, “Jesus himself, when he commenced his work, was about thirty years old, being the son, as the opinion was, of Joseph”? And in answer to Mary’s question, “How is this to be, since I am having no intercourse with a man?” why did the angel say, “Holy spirit will come upon you . . . For that reason also what is born will be called holy, God’s Son”?—Luke 1:34, 35.
If Jesus were God’s adopted son rather than his natural son, why, at his baptism, did not God say, “You are my adopted Son, the beloved,” instead of saying, “You are my Son”?—Luke 3:22.
Just a Prophet?
Whether Jesus was adopted or not adopted, many people will agree that a close relationship existed between Jesus and God. The Koran’s view, for example, is that Jesus was one of God’s prophets, though not God’s Son nor one who died a sacrificial death. In fact, the Koran claims that “never has Allah begotten a son.”b Believers are even told to “admonish those who say that Allah has begotten a son,” because “a monstrous blasphemy is that which they utter.”
The Koran admits that “before it the Book of Moses was revealed,” calling it “a guide and a blessing to all men,” and adds, “This Book confirms it.” The Koran also claims to be “no invented tale, but a confirmation of previous scriptures.” Now, if the Koran is “a confirmation of previous scriptures,” particularly of the “Book of Moses,” how about the scriptures at Genesis 6:2, 4, which speak about “the sons of the true God” and Exodus 4:22, which says: “This is what Jehovah has said: ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn’”? Why would God himself use the illustration of his having a son if the idea is such “a monstrous blasphemy”?
If Jesus was a true prophet of God and yet not God’s Son, why did he repeatedly speak of God as his Father? He even says of himself at Matthew 11:27: “Neither does anyone fully know the Father but the Son.”
The Jewish position rejects the idea that Jesus was a prophet of God, saying that, at best, Jesus was a great teacher; at worst, an impostor, but in no case the Messiah of Israel or the Son of God.
If Jesus were an impostor, a fraudulent Messiah, how do we account for his fulfilling scores of prophecies outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures to identify the true Messiah, including many over which he could have had no control?
Who He Really Was
This brings us to the last statement listed above, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the anointed one of God—not God himself but his firstborn Son—sent to earth in perfect human form to serve as God’s prophet, to bear witness to the truth and to give his life as a ransom for mankind. This view, supported by the historical evidence in the Bible, is the one taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Far from being a “fierce champion of the oppressed,” a “crucified clown,” “befuddled mystic” or “well-intentioned charlatan,” Jesus was the most balanced individual who has ever lived. He was a man of courage, manliness and strength, yet he was not ashamed to show tenderness; a man who could enjoy a wedding feast, but who always put spiritual interests first; a man who maintained himself in perfection, though he was never demanding, arrogant or overbearing with others.—Matthew, chapter 23; Mt 11:28-30; John 13:1-16; 2:1-12.
Jesus of Nazareth—Who Is He Now?
The earthly man Jesus of Nazareth no longer exists. He was put to death in 33 C.E. But a change had taken place at his baptism three and a half years earlier. Anointed with God’s holy spirit, Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus Christ—the anointed one, the promised Messiah. And as such he was resurrected by God to heavenly life on the third day following his death. So although the man Jesus of Nazareth is dead, Jesus Christ is alive. Thus, as important as it is to know who Jesus of Nazareth was, it is even more important to know who Jesus Christ is.—Acts 10:37-43.
Alive in heaven, Christ is now the ruler of a heavenly government that will soon rid the earth of wickedness. Imagine the blessings his perfect government will bring! “To peace there will be no end,” promises Isaiah 9:6, 7. “His kingdom” will be established firmly “by means of justice and by means of righteousness.” For how long? “From now on and to time indefinite,” answers the scripture. And what guarantee do we have that this will really happen? “The very zeal of Jehovah of armies will do this.”
Would you like to learn more about the wonderful prospect of living under the rule of this “Prince of Peace” on a paradise earth? If so, feel free to ask Jehovah’s Witnesses for further information so that you, too, can know the real Jesus Christ.
a Including the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus and the Roman man of letters Pliny the Younger.
b The quotations from the Koran (translation by N. J. Dawood) are, in order of appearance: suras 23:92; 18:5, 6; 46:13 and 12:112.
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CHECK THE ONE STATEMENT THAT CORRECTLY DESCRIBES WHO JESUS WAS
___ God himself, “very God of very God, . . . of one substance with the Father”
___ ‘a normal man with good things to say who was later glorified into the Son of God by early Christians’
___ the natural son of Joseph and Mary, “adopted” by God at the time of his baptism
___ one of God’s prophets but not, however, God’s Son nor one who died a sacrificial death
___ at best, a great teacher; at worst, an impostor—but in no case the Messiah of Israel or the Son of God
___ the Christ, the anointed one of God—not God himself but his firstborn Son—sent to earth in perfect human form to serve as God’s prophet, to bear witness to the truth and to give his life as a ransom for mankind
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OUTSTANDING PROPHECIES CONCERNING JESUS AND THEIR FULFILLMENT
open way to righteous 1 John 2:2
standing with God
three days, then Mt 16:21;
resurrected 1 Cor. 15:3-8