New York Times Writer Shows How He Would Have Written Obituary of Jesus

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Sam Roberts, an obituary writer for The New York Times, imagines how, given the facts available then, his predecessors might have reported the aftermath of an execution in the Middle East one Friday two millennia ago.

Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean carpenter turned itinerant minister whose appeals to piety and whose repute as a healer had galvanized a growing contingent of believers, died on Friday after being crucified that morning just outside Jerusalem, only days after his followers had welcomed him triumphantly to the city as “the anointed one” and “the Son of David.” He was about 33.

For a man who had lived the first three decades of his life in virtual obscurity, he attracted a remarkable following in only a few years.

His reputation reflected a persuasive coupling of message, personal magnetism, and avowed miracles. But it also resonated in the current moment of spiritual and economic discontent and popular resentment of authority and privilege, whether wielded by foreigners from Rome or by the Jewish priests in Jerusalem and their confederates.

Still, Jesus had been preceded in recent years by a litany of false messiahs. He followed a roster of self-styled prophets who promised salvation and, with their ragtag followers from separatist sects, cults, and fractious rebel groups, were branded as bandits by the governing Romans, ostracized by the ruling priests as heretics in a period of pessimistic apocalyptic expectation, and already lost to history.

Despite the throngs that greeted him in Jerusalem and applauded his daring assault on the Temple and his attack on the money changers who operate within its precincts with impunity, it is arguable whether the legacy of this man—whom some contemporaries dismissed, if guardedly, as “the one they call Messiah”—will be any more enduring or his followers any more committed than the prophets and their devotees who preceded him.

(Moreover, what he might have accomplished further had he lived is also debatable, since the average life span today is not much more than 40.)

Jesus seems to have been universally respected as a wise man whose appeal for mercy, humility, and compassion reverberated powerfully. But he left no written record, and, according to those who heard him, he sometimes preached mixed messages. He would bless the peacemakers, but also suggest that his followers buy swords. He would insist that his mission was solely to minister to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but would also direct his devotees to proselytize to other nations.

Even less is known about Jesus’s youth. He was born Yeshua bar Joseph (his very name, “Yahweh saves,” or freedom, after Joshua, could be considered incitable), in all likelihood in Nazareth (he was known as “the Nazarean”). Some adherents, however, insist that he was born in Bethlehem, a claim that would polish his bona fides as an heir to King David.

His father was named Joseph, although references to him are scarce after Jesus’s birth. His mother was Miriam, or Mary, and because he was sometimes referred to as “Mary’s son,” questions had been raised about his paternity.

He is believed to have been the eldest of at least six siblings, including four brothers—James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon—and several sisters. He never married—unusual for a man of his age, but not surprising for a Jew with an apocalyptic vision.

His survivors include his mother, his brother James, and a number of other siblings.

His family was devoutly Jewish, probably one of a hundred or so Jewish families in a windswept, mostly mud-and-brick hilltop village in lower Galilee populated largely by peasants and laborers. Although it is only an hour’s walk from cosmopolitan Sepphoris, the Nazareth in which he was born still remains unidentified on most maps, an indication of its insignificance.

Jesus spoke Aramaic, probably with a smattering of Hebrew and Greek, but although Nazareth had a synagogue, there is no record of his having had access to a formal education.

He grew up in a turbulent time. King Herod the Great had managed to pacify rival groups of Jews, Arabs, Greeks, Samaritans, and Syrians on behalf of the territory occupied by Rome for nearly six decades. But Herod’s death, roughly the same year that Jesus was born, and the completion of the Temple in Jerusalem contributed to mass unemployment, which further widened the gap in economic inequality that Jesus would witness growing up.

In his late 20s, Jesus was drawn to an ascetic preacher named John, who initiated his followers into what he believed was the true nation of Israel. According to John’s custom, they repented their sins and purged their impurities in the Jordan River, an immersion ritual commonly known in Hebrew as a mikveh and transliterated from Greek as baptisma.

Jesus was baptized shortly before John the Baptist’s explosive popularity rattled the skittish Romans, who arrested and executed him.

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SOURCE: Vanity Fair

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