The historical Jesus - Archdiocese of Brisbane

The historical Jesus

Jesus’ life tells us, very simply, that God is on our side; that God is compassionate, and feels with those who suffer, and comes to our aid – no matter what the consequences.
Dr Maeve Louise Heaney
Dr Maeve Louise Heaney teaches Theology at Australian Catholic University. Her website merging music and theology is


The historical Jesus

What can we say about the historical Jesus?

First and foremost – that there was an historical Jesus. And I know that may sound obvious, but I often think the basics, the foundations are more important than we give them credit for. We can ‘get used’ to them… and quite easily find ourselves out of touch with the surprise, the challenge, even scandal (then and now), that Christian faith is. The fact of the historical Jesus is as important as what he was like. God entered history. Eternity entered time; and from that point everything changes… humanity will never be the same again.

It is true that the Gospels tell the story from a faith perspective, from a “theological” perspective, but the story they tell is a real one. The sources we have for Jesus are at least as good as those we have for other figures of his day, so that invites us to read them attentively, and to allow them speak.

So what can we know about Jesus of the 1st century in our time? So what did he “look like”? What does he do?

To start with, Jesus was a Jew born into in a particular time and place: the Middle East, Palestine, during the time of the Roman Empire when Augustus, and then Tiberius were emperors. Being aware of this and knowing Jesus had a specific culture could be helpful for many of our own current cultural interactions and issues.

And it can help us comprehend better the meaning of his actions, which otherwise we tend to tame.

We could name some facts about Jesus – time does not let us explain them all.

  • We know little of his early life up to the point where he was baptised by a preacher known as John the Baptist; this seems to have provoked a reaction as it was for people who recognised themselves as ‘sinners’.
  • He announced a Kingdom and called it good news… and made it present wherever he passed provoking healings, miracles and life changes;
  • He had a tremendous – unusual even – authority when he spoke; and owned that authority;
  • He chose disciples to come with him, (in contrast to the custom of his time, in which disciples chose their own master);
  • He interacted (ate, drank and made friends) with people who were on the edge of society;
  • He called God “Abba”, an expression of immense intimacy – scandalous to his peers. And he named this God as the reason behind all he said and did. It was this reasoning and challenge to those around him that led him to gather opposition from the people of his time, including the Jewish religious leaders and was handed over to the Roman authorities to be crucified. He accepted, one could say embraced, that fate.
  • Before he died, he had a significant “Going Away Meal” which has marked the Church since then in its celebration of the Eucharist;
  • and after his death, Jesus was witnessed to as risen by his disciples and that experience was and still is at the origin of the story/ history of the disciples and the Church since then.

These are facts we can know about the person of Jesus, but is there a core, or central point to express it in? Who is Jesus? The name says a lot. “Jesus”: ‘one through whom ‘God saves’; Emmanuel: God-with-us. Jesus is the face of God’s compassionate, merciful love for us.

Pope Francis offers mercy as a lens through which to see both God and the church, and it’s a great key word, as long as we get to the heart of it. In English, the word “mercy” can evoke pity, even condescension. But the Latin, misericordia, brings together two words – miseria and cordis; misery and heart: God’s heart in our misery, which transforms, changes, burns, renews.

Mercy is not a ‘light’ concept. Just as Jesus’ life was not a nice, light, polite life! It was a challenge from start to finish: a turning around of all the images and expectations of God and how salvation would happen; reaching out to and accepting every individual who would open hands and heart to receive from him.

Jesus’ life tells us, very simply, that God is on our side; that God is compassionate, and feels with those who suffer, and comes to our aid – no matter what the consequences. And for the historical Jesus (as for those in our times who do the same) that meant persecutions… and death. But this was not the last word. We said “no” to that brilliant, shining, scary, mercy-filled life. But God the Father said yes: the resurrection! So that life won; that life, is life.

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