The Life of Christ

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What is the Life of Christ?

The life of Christ is the life that the incarnate Son of God lived upon earth from the time of his conception until his Ascension.

The principal events of the life of Christ

Conception and birth (c. 6 BC) His miraculous conception in Nazareth and his birth in Bethlehem

Hidden life (to c. 24 AD) His thirty years living in Nazareth, known as the carpenter’s son

Public ministry (to c. 27 AD) His three year mission preaching the Kingdom of God, working signs and miracles and establishing his Church

Death, Resurrection, Ascension (c. 27 AD) His submission to a cruel execution on a cross as a sacrifice for sin; his Resurrection and Ascension into glory

The common timescale of all human history is now measured by the coming of Christ. The words ‘before Christ’ (BC) refer to the years prior to his birth. The words ‘anno Domini’ (AD), ‘in the year of the Lord’, acknowledge his continuing reign.

The public ministry of Jesus Christ

JESUS REVEALED HIS IDENTITY

Jesus witnessed to his unique relationship with ‘the Father’ referring to himself as the only Son (Mt 21:33-41; Mt 11:27). He clearly asserted his own eternal existence and divinity by applying to himself the name of God revealed to Moses: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn 8:58, c.f. Ex 3:14). He witnessed to his divine power by great nature miracles (Mt 8:26), and by forgiving sins, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5).

JESUS EXPLAINED HIS MISSION

Jesus explained that he was to die for the salvation of the world (Jn 12:32) and to share with us the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). His inaugurating of the Kingdom of God was shown by his victory over evil in forgiving sins, casting out demons and healing the sick (Mt 10:7-8).

JESUS TAUGHT HIS NEW DOCTRINE

Jesus explained his new teaching in his parables and above all in the Sermon on the Mount. By word and example he taught a new commandment of divine love of God and neighbour (Jn 13:34), a love made possible by his gift of the life of grace.

JESUS FOUNDED HIS CHURCH

In choosing twelve apostles Jesus established a visible Church, a new Israel (Mt 10:2). He gave authority to Peter and the other apostles to govern and to teach, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Mt 16:19). He also gave them new sacramental rites, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). These superseded the ancient Jewish rites and empower us to be born again in Baptism and live the new life of grace.

Knowing Jesus Christ

We know Jesus Christ through reason and the gift of faith, which leads to personal friendship.

Knowing Jesus through reason

Through reasoned investigation we can know the life of Jesus, the world in which he lived and his teaching. The twentyseven documents of the New Testament constitute the largest volume of written evidence in the ancient world about any one person. Non-Christian historians of that period also refer to Jesus Christ, in particular Josephus and Tacitus. The New Testament documents were all written some twenty to seventy years after the public ministry of Jesus Christ. They were commonly accepted in the early Church as having been written under the authority of the apostles. The four gospels provide mutual corroboration of the events of Jesus’ life. While they use a variety of styles, details and arrangements, a single clear personality emerges from the texts.

Knowing Jesus through faith

We also know Jesus through the supernatural gift of faith. This enables us to recognise Christ’s divine personhood and trust in his saving mission. Our relationship with him is then cultivated through familiarity with his character in the Gospels, prayer, receiving him in the Eucharist and conforming our lives to the pattern of his life. This personal knowledge leads us to friendship with him as our living Lord.

Common questions

Did Jesus Christ really exist?

Yes, Jesus Christ really existed. The life and work of Jesus Christ are probably better attested than our knowledge of any other person in the ancient world.

We know about Jesus Christ principally by means of the twenty-seven documents known as the New Testament. These constitute the largest volume of written evidence in the ancient world about any one person.

Other early Christian works corroborate many details of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, records made by the two greatest non-Christian historians of this period affirm some basic facts about Jesus: the Roman historian Tacitus confirms that Christ suffered the ‘extreme penalty’ under Pontius Pilate; the Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus who was called ‘the Christ’ and to his trial by the Sanhedrin.

Are the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ accurate?

The gospels themselves emphasise that they are accounts drawn from the testimony of eyewitnesses, implying both the desire and the means to draw up accurate accounts of the life of Christ.

The Gospel of John, for examples, states “He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth – that you also may believe” (John 19:35).

The Gospel of Luke also begins by stating that the account is taken from eyewitnesses; in other words, people who had known Jesus personally during his public ministry and after his Resurrection.

Furthermore, writing in the second century, St. Irenaeus confirms that the gospels were written by those intimately associated with Jesus or his apostles. As to whether the gospels were written in good faith, it is hard to see any motive for the authors writing what they did not believe about Christ, especially as their love for Christ brought the apostles persecution and even death.

Were the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ modified in later centuries?

Evidence for the textual stability of the gospels is that many early Christian writers cite substantially and extensively the same texts that we use today.

To give one example, St. Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, written in the middle of the second century, cites the words of John the Baptist and Jesus in those verses now classified as Matthew 3:11-12 and Matthew 17:12, “I baptise you with water… He shall baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’…  etc”.

To give another example, Tertullian, at the start of the third century, cites passages from the four gospels, Acts, Epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, Jude and Revelation.

Furthermore, early papyrus fragments of New Testament texts of the canon as it is known to us today – an example being Rylands Papyrus 457 [P52].

Finally, two large physical manuscripts have survived from the fourth century that together cover nearly the entire New Testament, the Codex Vaticanus and  the Codex Sinaiticus.

The cumulative effect of all these sources, together with intensive work in textual criticism over the past two centuries, gives us a high degree of confidence in the substantial integrity of the New Testament texts we have today.

Why can’t we say that Jesus Christ was simply a good man or moral teacher?

Given his claims to be the Son of God, we cannot simply say that Jesus was a good man or moral teacher. As C.S. Lewis said, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse” (Mere Christianity).

In other words, there are only three possible conclusions that we can reach regarding Jesus Christ: either he was mad, or he was bad, or he was God himself come to save us. He cannot simply be a good man or moral teacher.

This article is originally from ‘CREDO: The Catholic Faith explained’ by CTS.

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