The Early Life And Ministry Of Jesus

Chapter V

The Early Life And Ministry Of Jesus

The task of removing from the record of the life and ministry of our Lord those events which are incredible, or which seem to have been borrowed from contemporary mythology, is one which may be undertaken without the dread of any adverse consequences upon one’s faith, but, on the contrary, with a sense of happiness and relief. Some critics have been worried by these unbelievable incidents into a general agnosticism, and others have employed them with energy as arguments to prove that Jesus never existed at all; and it is, therefore, a matter of profound satisfaction to find that such legends can be discarded without detracting from the supreme value of the Gospel story.

Let us consider, then, what parts of the accounts of our Lord’s life may be regarded as historical. In the first place we have to recognize that nothing is known with certainty about His birth, childhood, and early manhood; for in the earliest Gospel, that of St. Mark, the story opens at the beginning of His ministry, and so it does, too, in the Gospel of St. John. The early years are only recounted in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew, neither of which dates before 100 A. D.,; and, even so, the two accounts are essentially different.

In St. Matthew, the parents of Jesus live in Bethlehem, (1) which is in Judaea, about five miles/8km south of Jerusalem, but migrate to Nazareth in Galilee, far north of Jerusalem, after their return from Egypt; (2) but in St. Luke they live in Nazareth, (3) and go to Bethlehem only for the purpose of being taxed. (4) The Gospel of St. Mark, our best authority, speaks of Jesus as “Nazareth,” (5) but makes no mention at all of Bethlehem. Now, many critics (6) have argued that there was no such place as Nazareth, for, outside the Bible, there is no reference to it as a village either before the Christian era or in the first three centuries A. D., and they suggest that it was a place-name invented, and afterwards attached to an appropriate village, to account for the forgotten origin of the title “Jesus the Nazarite,” the real origin of which, they argue, was the Hebrew root-word n s r, meaning “to protect,” “Jesus the Protector” being, perhaps, the name of an old Hebrew folk-god long before the time of our Lord. The general opinion, however, is that the present village of Nazareth in Galilee was, in fact, the home of Jesus; but there is an equally general doubt that He was born at Bethlehem in Judaea. The Bethlehem story, it is thought, was introduced in order to strengthen the idea that He was the Messiah, for the family of David, of whose seed the Messiah was to be born, sprang from this Bethlehem in Judaea. Actually, however, it is more probable that Jesus was born in a little hamlet still called Bethlehem, close to Nazareth in Galilee. (7) The story of the taking of a census by order of Augustus, which compelled Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem in Judaea, is pretty certainly incorrect; for no such census is known to have been made in any year which can be regarded as a likely date of the birth of Jesus, if we assume that He was somewhere about thirty at the beginning of His ministry. It is obviously impossible, also, that citizens should have been obliged to proceed to their ancestral home to be numbered, and, indeed, it is known that all Roman censuses were made at the place of residence of the citizens. Moreover, Galilee was ruled independently by Herod Antipas at the time when Quirinus, or Cyrenius, (8) went to tax Judaea.

In St. Matthew Jesus was born in a house; (9) but in St. Luke He is born in a stable, (10) and in later times this stable is generally represented as being in a cave. The mythological origin of this idea, however, is so obvious that the whole story must be abandoned. Firstly, as regards the cave: the cave shown at Bethlehem as the birth-place of Jesus was actually a rock shrine in which the god Tammuz or Adonis was worshipped, as the early Christian Father, Jerome, tells us; (11) and its adoption as the scene of the birth of our Lord was one of those frequent instances of the taking over by Christians of a pagan sacred site. The propriety of this appropriation was increased by the fact that the worship of a god in a cave was a commonplace in paganism: Apollo, Cybele, Demeter, Herakles, Hermes, Mithra and Poseidon were all adored in  caves, Hermes, the Greek Logos, being actually born of Maia in a cave, (12) and Mithra being “rock-born.”

Then, as regards the stable: St. Luke (13) says that when the child was born Mary wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger (phatne’), that is to say a rough trough, like the Greek liknon, which was a sort of basket used either for hay or as an actual cradle, somewhat as the manger is represented in Botticelli’s picture of the Nativity. (14) The author of the Gospel of St. Luke, however, was here drawing upon Greek mythology; for the god Hermes was wrapped in swaddling clothes when he was born and was placed in a liknon, or manger-basket. So, also, was the god Dionysos, (15) who, in Bithynia, gave his name to the month beginning at our Christmas, and who, as will be pointed out in Chapter XXIII, was closely related to the popular conception of Jesus. In the legend of the birth of the divine Ion, the mythical ancestor of the Ionians, again, the babe is placed in just such a basket in a cave. (16)

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, but nowhere else, we have the story that Joseph was warned in a dream of Herod’s intention to kill the child, and that therefore he took Him to Egypt; and that in the meantime Herod caused all the infants of Bethlehem to be massacred. (17) Now, in the first place, Herod died in the year 4 B. C., and Jesus does not seem to have been born until the year 2 B. C. or 1 B. C. (a paradox due to the fact that the reckoning Anno Domin is a year or two out); and at any rate, Josephus, who fully records all the crimes of Herod, makes no mention of this massacre. Actually, the story seems to be an echo of old Jewish legends, such as that of Nimrod, who is said to have tried to destroy the baby Abraham by slaughtering all the infants in his dominions; (18) that of the Pharaoh of Egypt who wished to kill all the Jewish firstborn; (19) and that of Joab who tried to kill the child Hadad by massacring the men of Edom, (20) Hadad escaping by flight into Egypt. There is also the story of the Roman Senate attempting by such a massacre to kill the baby Augustus. (21) At any rate its historicity is so very doubtful that the commemoration of the massacre in the Church calendar, and the reference to it in the Anglican collect for the Day, might with profit be cancelled.

I may add that the time of year at which Jesus was born is completely unknown, the date of our Christmas Day, 25th December, having been adopted by the Church only in the Fourth Century A. D., this being the traditional date of the birth of the sun-god; but of this I will speak in a later chapter. Nothing, in fact, is known historically about the birth or early years of our Lord. All that can be said is that He was the son of a carpenter named Joseph and his wife, probably called Mary, (22) who seemed to have lived at Nazareth, or the neighbouring hamlet of Bethlehem. These two had at least seven children, there being five sons – Jesus, James, Joses, Judas, and Simon – and two or more daughters, whose names are not known; (23) and we may therefore picture our Lord as growing up with His brothers and sisters in the usual rough manner of a middle-class native household, but gradually detaching Himself from them as His religious consciousness developed.

Then, perhaps about the year 28 or 29 A. D., though the date is very uncertain, He set out upon His ministry; and from that time until His arrest in April, 30 A. D., the account of His wanderings is sufficiently full for us to be able to build up a clear picture of the Master. I will speak in the next chapter of the miracles and miraculous occurrences recorded in the Gospels, most of which can be discarded without loss to the story: it is only necessary here to point out that the historical personality of Jesus, and the supremacy of that personality, rest upon His sayings, backed up by the record of His behaviour as chronicled in the Synoptic Gospels. The sayings are to be regarded as, on the whole, authentic, for they are mostly derived from the two actual collections written down by Mark and Matthew, as Bishop Papias has recorded. (24)

Now, those critics (25) who hold that Jesus never lived, have been at pains to show that most of the things He said had been said before: for instance, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” (26) is the same as the Psalmist’s “The meek shall inherit the land;” (27) “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy cheek, turn to him the other also,” (28) is the same as Jeremiah’s “He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him,” (29) and Isaiah’s “I give my cheeks to them that plucked out his hair”, (30) and so forth. But one may go further than this, and may say that the wisdom of Jesus is the cream of the wisdom of all the philosophers, both Jewish and pagan; and yet that there is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that their authors could have been capable of searching the books of the world and of collecting this wisdom so as to make it seem to fall from the lips of one imaginary figure.

Nor can the authors of the Gospels, who delighted in wild tales of miracles and in all manner of incredible marvels, be deemed capable of having invented so sublime a figure as that of the simple, self-sacrificing, tender-hearted, gallant Jesus which their stories reveal. If ever there was an authentic personality in history, it is that of our Lord; and the removal of the miraculous element from the Gospels only serves to make Him stand out more clearly as the most perfect character the world has ever known.

The fact that so little is told us about His early years, and that in two of the Gospels the account begins only at His baptism by John, goes to prove that the writers of these books were not romancing. Had they been inventing the story they would have had a great deal to say about the manifestations of His divine nature during his youth.


  • Implied in Matt. ii. I.
  • ii. 23.
  • Luke i. 26.
  • Luke ii. 4.
  • Mark xiv. 67; xvi. 6.
  • Brandes, Jesus, a Myth, p. 92.
  • Reville, Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Luke ii. 2.
  • ii. 11.
  • Luke ii. 7.
  • iviii., ad Paulinum.
  • Apollodorus, book iii., x. 2.
  • Luke ii. 7.
  • National Gallery, London.
  • Smith, Dict. Of Gr. And Rom. Antiq.
  • Euripides, Ion.
  • ii. 13-21
  • Giran, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 49.
  • Exodus i. 15.
  • I Kings xi. 15.
  • Suetonius, Octavius, 94.
  • See Chapter IV.
  • Mark vi. 3.
  • See Chapter III.
  • For instance, J. M. Robertson, Christianity and Mythology, p. 440 ff.
  • v. 5.
  • Psalm xxxvii. II.
  • v. 39.
  • iii. 30.
  • Isaiah iv. 6