Why was Jesus remembered?
Flavius Josephus, our chief source for the history of Palestine in the First century, refers to numerous charismatic leaders and prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus, the ‘wise man’ amongst them. In passing, ‘Jesus’ was a popular name and can be found 21 times in the index to Josephus’s works.
Most of these leaders and prophets appeared in times of great political tension.
In 4 BC, after the death of Herod the Great, Judas sought to capture Galilee, Simon Perea and Athronges Judea. The Romans marched down from Antioch-on-the-Orontes to suppress these uprisings and install Herod’s sons in charge of various regions – Archelaus in Judea, Antipas in Galilee-Perea and Philip in Gaulanitis.
In AD 6 the Romans sacked Archelaus and conducted a census when they annexed Judea as a province of Rome. Judas the Galilean led a rebellion, proclaiming ‘no master except God’, that is, ‘no Roman taxation and no Roman occupation’. The Romans killed him and suppressed the rebellion.
The period AD 6-37 ‘all was quiet’ in Judea, according to Tacitus. It was in this relatively ‘quiet’ period that we read about John the Baptist and Jesus in Josephus, and of course, in the Gospels.
From AD 41-44 Herod’s grandson Herod Agrippa ruled as king over a united Israel – Judea, Galilee-Perea and Gaulanitis. We meet him in Acts 12. When he died unexpectedly in AD 44 the Romans re-annexed Judea, but now also Galilee and Gaulanitis. There there was a succession of very bad Roman governors and this seems to have been the reason various prophets like Theudas and the ‘Egyptian’ arose. These prophets took their many followers to locations evocative of the Conquest of Palestine (the Jordan, the desert) where they promised ‘signs of freedom’, presumably believing they would trigger an eschatological act, the expulsion of the occupiers of the Land, as in the days of Moses and Joshua. The Romans killed these prophets before they could work their miracle-‘signs’.
In the 60s with Roman invasion now inevitable the Sicarii (‘assassins’) captured Masada and various warlord-leaders arose to defend besieged Jerusalem (e.g., Simon bar Gioras, John of Gischla) and a bizarre prophet Jesusson of Ananias, a peasant, prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Josephus, Jewish War 6.300-309).
The movements of these leaders did not survive their deaths; nor was there any documentation to our knowledge from within the movements, or names of their followers.
Josephus also tells us of various ‘philosophies’ or sects: the Pharisees, the Saduccess, the Essenes, and the ‘fourth philosophy’ (in effects, ‘zealots’). These ‘philosophies’ emerged during the Maccabean era 200 yeaqs earlier. The Essenes, Saduccees and ‘fourth philosophy’ did not survive the AD 66-70 war when the Romans invaded the land. The Pharisee movement did survive and morphed into ‘Rabbinic Judaism’ and produced e.g., Mishnah and Talmudic writings.
The charismatic leaders and prophets had very large followings, many more than Jesus. It’s true that vast numbers heard and saw Jesus, in fact, 5000 men on one occasion. Yet the actual number of those who seriously ‘followed’ Jesus was small, a mere twelve disciples. These other leaders and prophets are now forgotten and only of interest to historians of the period. But hundreds of books about Jesus are written every year. Why?
Why was Jesus of Nazareth remembered, as we learn from Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny who each refer to an ongoing and growing ‘Christ’ movement?
Let me suggest eight reasons Jesus was remembered
(1) Jesus was preceded and heralded by the great prophet, John the Baptist.
(2) Jesus proclaimed the coming of the ‘kingdom of God’ in the here and now, as witnessed by
- his miracles, including expulsion of unclean spirits
- his parables, explaining the kingdom of God
- in the wisdom and force of his teaching to crowds and opponents
(3) By his effective training of the twelve to continue his mission
(4) By the conversion of Paul and his astonishingly tenacious missions
(5) By the nobility of Jesus’ manner of death despite its cruelty and injustice
(6) By the conviction that his death was potent to save people from their sins
(7) By the power of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, witnessed by miracles
(8) By the dedication of the original disciples, their evangelism and writings
Within the next generation vigorous mission work (led by Peter, James, John, Paul) followed, accompanied by mission literature (27 New Testament texts). By the end of the first century the Jesus-movement was largely rejected by Jews and embraced by Gentiles, to the point in AD 313 where in the Edict of Milan Constantine proclaimed toleration of Christianity as precursor to it becoming the religion of the empire.
Jesus is remembered because millions believe the writings of the New Testament that tell us Jesus was the Son of God who died for human sin, was raised alive from the dead and is the Lord of history. Furthermore, this is not merely empty knowledge. God sends the Spirit of Jesus to those who believe in him giving them profound conviction that he truly is all the New Testament teaches about him.