Our main guidebook for this journey back in time is the Bible, particularly the gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But, this account also draws on archaeological finds and historical sources, especially the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish officer during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans (66-70 AD). It is also based on the remembrances of those who have had the great privilege of visiting the sites of Jesus' life and ministry in Israel and the area known alternately as Palestine or the "West Bank."
All four gospels are anonymous; the authors never identified themselves in their accounts. The names given them were added later. Matthew, Mark and Luke have a significant amount of material in common and share the same basic outline of Jesus' life and ministry. Therefore, they are known as the "Synoptic" gospels, meaning that they share a common perspective, quite different from that of John, whose contents are highly distinctive.
The purpose of the gospel writers, whoever they were, was to show that Jesus was the son of God, the long-promised Messiah sent by God to redeem those who believe. The gospels are not historical accounts, nor biographies; they were never intended to be chronological records of past events. Therefore they vary in the order in which they record Jesus' life. The differences in sequential order can be attributed to several factors. They were written from different perspectives. Each author was also writing to a particular audience and wished to achieve a particular purpose. This explains why some events are recorded by only one or two of the gospel writers, and why one account includes details not included in other accounts of the same event. Although a cursory reading of the different gospels can be confusing, careful study reveals a striking harmony.
Why did it take so long — 35-plus years — for written accounts of Jesus' life and ministry to appear?
Prior to this time, the expectation of Jesus' imminent return, the close-knit nature of the early Christian communities and the availability of eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry — who could give first-hand accounts of his message — discouraged the need for written records of "all that Jesus began to do and to teach." (Acts 1:1) However, the "delay" in Jesus' return, when the first-generation Christians passed from the scene, and when Christianity spread around the Mediterranean, written accounts became a necessity.
A summary of Jesus' life according to the gospels
Over the course of his very short ministry, of some three years, Jesus affected humanity more than all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever met, all the kings, presidents and dictators that ever ruled, put together. Yet he lived and preached in a small country during a very troubled time.
He was born in Bethlehem amid the hills of Judea and raised in Nazareth of Galilee. As a youth he went with his family to Jerusalem for Passover; as a man he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. After 40 days in the Judean desert near Jericho, "Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching ... and healing" (Matthew 4:23).
Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, a son of Herod "the Great." Antipas' capital, Tiberias, stood on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee, a 13-mile-long lake both fed and drained by the Jordan River. Ringing the lake were fishing ports like Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, Bethsaida and Capernaum, which Jesus made "his own city." Often he walked the Plain of Gennesaret, and nearby preached the Sermon on the Mount and worked the miracle of loaves and fishes. To the west, at Cana, he changed water to wine; at Nain he raised a widow's son from the dead. To the east, he took his message into Perea (meaning "beyond the Jordan") and the Decapolis, ten Hellenistic (and pagan) cities founded after the Roman takeover in 63 BC. He also journeyed north "to the region of Tyre and Sidon." Later, near Caesarea Philippi in the extreme north, he asked each disciple to "take up his cross, and follow me." In that same classically pagan area, possibly on the snow-capped peak of Mount Hermon, he was revealed as the "beloved Son" of God. Soon after he followed the deep corridor of the Jordan River to Jericho, then "up to" Jerusalem, where the final events of his life — his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension — took place.
The geographical and historical setting
Jesus lived and preached in a small country, roughly the size and shape of the state of Vermont turned upside down. Two thousand years ago — like today — it was a place of great turmoil. In 63 BCE, the famed Roman general Pompey conquered the area and placed it under the control of the new Roman province of Syria. In 40 BCE the emperor Augustus (Octavian) designated Herod as puppet king. Herod, who history knows as Herod "the Great," was not of pure Israelite lineage. He was an Idumean, a (descendent of the hated Edomites) who had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE). For thirty-three years Herod ruled with a cruel and merciless hand. A great network of hard-surfaced roads was begun, by which the disciplined and well-armed Roman army could travel quickly anywhere to keep order; the Pax Romana ("Roman peace") it enforced made the lands safe for travelers and goods. Generally, this firmly imposed legal and military administration brought economic prosperity. For the sake of unity and pacification, local customs and religions were officially tolerated, but the empire's diverse provinces were encouraged to adopt the culture of ancient Greece and pay homage to the emperor as a sign of loyalty. But the efforts of Rome to institute such policies in Palestine met fierce resistance from the Jews who found many aspects of Roman religion distasteful, including their pantheon of gods (many borrowed directly from the Greeks and renamed) and the practice of emperor worship.
While all Jews hated their Roman oppressors, different classes of society reacted in different ways. The Sadducees, the wealthy aristocracy, collaborated with the Romans to protect their wealth and control of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council/supreme court, which still had some power. The Pharisees where a priestly sect who advocated strict observance of religious tradition, but had no power. They were common Jews who sought to apply the Law to everyday situations in order to live lives of holiness. In addition to the Torah or written Law, the Pharisees looked to a revered oral tradition, The Scribes were highly trained, well paid, and respected professionals who, like the Pharisees, were legal experts. Both the Pharisees and Scribes did not collaborate with the Romans, but withdrew from public affairs and became extremely religious. Jesus often rebuked the self-righteous Pharisees and Scribes for being hypocrites.
Other sects, like the Essenes withdrew from society altogether, practicing their beliefs in monasteries, like that at Qumran near the Dead Sea. The Zealots, on the other hand, made open war with the Romans and spread terror with their concealed daggers.
The common people hesitated between the teachings of the Pharisees and the wild visions of the Zealots. With smoldering hatred, they bore the Roman yoke while false prophets and revolutionaries arose, only to see their followers brutally crushed. Guerrillas and bandits infested the hills, tax collectors squeezed peasants to fatten the Roman treasury (and their own pockets). The Temple, too, imposed a huge burden on the common people, demanding ten percent of all a person had, then adding mandatory offerings for such things as widows, children, animals and the poor. To this the Romans added poll taxes, salt taxes, land taxes, cattle taxes, city taxes, road taxes and frontier taxes (just for passing from one area to another). All the offerings, tithes and taxes, in addition to the widespread corruption, took their toll and contributed to the grinding poverty that permeated the land. Worse than the poverty was the lack of freedom. The Roman Empire was merely the latest in a long line of foreign nations and empires that sought to conquer and control Palestine. Many Jews felt powerless and looked to the coming Messiah, the anointed one promised by the prophets. Surely he would rid them of the Romans and restore the glory and independence of Israel.
And so, our journey begins...
After 6,000 miles in the air from New York City to Ben Gurion Airport, located at the ancient city of Lydda (OT Lod), near Tel Aviv, we head northward on Road 2 through the Plain of Sharon until its junction with Road 65 heading northeast into the Jezreel Valley where we join a man and his pregnant fiancée — Joseph and Mary — making their way south on a week-long, 80-mile journey from their home in Nazareth to the small village of Bethlehem in Judea...