Among the influences that shaped Western Civilization, there’s probably no story more significant than the “Jesus Story.” Even for religious skeptics, the historical influence of Jesus of Nazareth is the result of arguably the most influential life ever lived.
Jesus was raised in humble Jewish surroundings in Roman-controlled Judea and Galilee, he never traveled more than 200 miles from his birthplace, he had a small group of simple followers, and he was killed for violating the religious laws of his own people. He never received political power, he never raised an army, and he never conquered territory. By historical standards, Jesus didn’t cut it as an influential figure in political, economic, or military power.
So, why the powerful influence — even today?
Why does about a third of the world call themselves his followers about 2,000 years later?
There must be something more to the story surrounding the historical influence of Jesus…
Who is Jesus of Nazareth?
Setting aside religious assumptions, what do historians really know about the “Jesus Story?” What does history tell us about Jesus of Nazareth?
Jesus was born in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago. For his first thirty years or so, he lived a traditional Jewish life in Nazareth, working with his father as a tradesman. During this period, all of Israel was under Roman control.
When Jesus was about 30-years-old, he started his public ministry around the Sea of Galilee. He was known for powerful teaching and a series of recorded miracles. Over the next three-plus years, his reputation spread throughout the region, although he tried to keep a low profile. The Roman rulers of the Jewish provinces and the religious leaders of the Jewish people kept an eye on him. But why…? It seems his main teachings in public were:
- God loves us.
- Love each other.
- People have unique value.
- The Kingdom of God has come to earth.
- God will judge us in the end.
- God forgives those who ask.
For some reason, Jesus became more and more of a perceived threat to the “organized religion” of the day.
As a result, the Jewish leaders asked the Roman leaders – who were in control at the time — to execute him. There were official trials, but the Romans determined that Jesus was innocent of any crime against Rome. The religious leaders persisted with political arguments and ultimately persuaded Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area, to approve the execution.
Jesus was mocked, tortured, and hung on a wooden cross just outside Jerusalem. His simple followers scattered. Three hours later, he was dead.
Historical Influence of Jesus
It would seem that the historical account of Jesus – and any long-lasting historical influence – should end right there… with his death.
… But, it didn’t.
We know that something happened – something caused his scattered followers to reconnect – reengage — spread the word about Jesus again.
Within a couple months, there were thousands in and around Jerusalem that became his disciples. Within a couple centuries, there were hundreds of thousands in the Mediterranean region that called themselves “Christians” – or followers of Jesus Christ. In 325 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Within 500 years, Greek temples to pagan gods were being converted to Christian churches all over the Roman world.
What could have happened to cause such a powerful movement in the name of one simple man?
Growth of Jesus’ influcence
Indeed, about one-third of the world is considered “Christian” today. That’s a pretty staggering number – that’s a pretty influential life after nearly 2,000 years. Yes, some religious institutions have confused and cluttered the original message of Jesus over the centuries, but his simple life and powerful words still speak for themselves.
That’s why we spent over two years producing this series of Drive Thru History. We returned to the original texts – the Gospels – and the original landscape – Israel – and take the time to explore the history, geography, and culture surrounding the life of Jesus. The question, “Who is Jesus?” obviously still matters. Against all odds, the historical influence of Jesus continues to expand throughout the world.
“The Gospels” introduction video