Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780


Icon from St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai.

Feb. 5, 2002

Who Was Jesus?

By Bailey Thomson

We know little about the personal life of Jesus. The three synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—provide the most details, but they are not biographies. Their authors’ purpose was to share the Good News that God Incarnate had walked the earth and sacrificed himself that we might have everlasting life.  

For example, as the Pulitzer Prize winning author Jack Miles notes in his new book, we do not see Jesus engaged in everyday conversation, even with his disciples. Nor does Jesus ever ask a question that he does not already know the answer. As Miles writes, since the New Testament leaves out everything that is insignificant about Jesus, then we can safely assume that everything its books do tell us about him is significant.[1]

In these Gospels, we glimpse only a few shreds of Jesus’ family life. They indicate that in the beginning, at least, his mother and siblings had grave misgivings about what he was doing. In the third chapter of Mark, we read that his relatives had heard rumors that Jesus had gone out of his mind. Some scribes had even charged that Satan was the inspiration behind Jesus’ healing and teachings. The family members go to restrain Jesus, but they cannot get close enough because the crowd is so dense.  Meanwhile, Jesus will not come out and join them. Instead, he simply looks around at his listeners and declares, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” 

Jesus often spoke in such oblique fashion, especially when he taught in parables. Once his disciples asked about his method of teaching. He responded in Mark 4:11, “To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables…” He then patiently walked them through the story of the man who sowed his seeds. In fact, Mark says that he explained everything in private to his disciples.[2] 

One must remember that Jesus lived in dangerous times in a country occupied by a Roman army. Whatever he said could be held against him. Yet his parables come down to us today as remarkably clear in their meaning, provided that, as Jesus said, we have ears to listen.  

We certainly do not know what Jesus looked like. But I think it is safe to say that he did not resemble the blonde-haired, blue-eyed portrait that must have graced every white Protestant church in the South when I was a boy. The real Jesus could not have had such features, for he was born into the Semitic branch of mankind. Had he looked different from others of his race, then I think the Gospels would have made note of it. That feature would have been significant. 

Thus if so many details are missing that would flesh out Jesus the man, how is it that he has come down to us through two millennia as the most powerful personage of human history? Why are we gathered here tonight in his name, eager to go forward and proclaim him as our savior?  

The answer, I think, is that the sum of what we know about Jesus is greater than the parts. We may wish for more information, but we don’t really need it. He lives within us as Christians, helping us grow more like him everyday, if only we will listen to his words. 

My favorite detail about Jesus comes from Matthew 7:28.  Jesus had just finished telling the parable about the man who built his house upon a foundation of sand, with disastrous results. Matthew writes, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” 

That’s it, all right. Jesus had authority. He didn’t get it from any book or any other teacher. Instead, he got it straight from God, his father.  

Many people, including his earthly family members, had difficulty at times understanding why Jesus did or said certain things. Indeed, his actions and teachings often remain difficult for us today. But throughout his ministry, Jesus showed an inner light that drew people to him like moths to a flame. And when he spoke, no one could forget what he said or how he said it.  Those teachings resonate today with all the power and clarity in our language as they did in the original Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue. 

Yes, Jesus spoke with authority. And because he had this miraculous quality, he is whole for us as our Savior. We understand the story of his life and what it means for us and the generations to follow. 

“I have come as light into the world,” Jesus says in John 12:46, “so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”

[1] Jack Miles, “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God,” Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, pp. 40-42.

[2] Mark 4:33.

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