After two thousand years, historians are still trying to piece together exactly how it all happened. In a little more than two years, a mysterious Jewish rabbi from a small village in northern Israel launched an underground social and religious movement that spread like wildfire throughout the entire eastern Mediterranean. His friends would eventually call it ha-derech in Hebrew, hodos in Greek. It means simply “the Way”—likely a term to summarize the rabbi’s message about the way of God’s kingdom.
We call the rabbi who founded this new movement Jesus, but his real name was Yeshu’a, an Aramaic abbreviation of the Hebrew Yehoshua that means, coincidentally or not, “God saves.” He had been raised in the tiny, isolated village of Natzara in the foothills just four miles from Sepphoris, the wealthy Jewish city that was the capital of the Galilee area. His father had been what the Greeks called a tekton, a builder with wood and stone. Although Jesus worked at the same trade (Mark 6:3), and had a shrewd knowledge of building and business (Luke 14:28), he had from his youth traveled all over the region, listening to what different Torah teachers had to say (Luke 2:41–52). Many learned rabbis at this time worked at trades while furthering their educations. The great rabbi Hillel, who died twenty years earlier, had worked as a woodcutter.
Jesus referred to his movement as “the kingdom of God,” an unusual phrase not found in the Hebrew Scriptures but used once in the deuterocanonical or apocryphal Book of Wisdom (10:10). Jesus said he had been sent to declare the good news of the kingdom (Luke 4:43), and insisted, no fewer than three times, that it was a mission that would get him killed (Mark 8:31, 9:30-32 and 10:32-34). Jesus also warned his earliest and closest associates that they too would likely pay a high price for following in his footsteps. He predicted that many of his friends and followers would be tortured for their involvement in his crusade, and some would be executed in cold blood (Matt. 24:9). Yet despite this, many pledged their lives to his service and to the mission he dared them to undertake. In less than thirty months, Jesus and his friends ignited a spiritual revolution that sent shock waves far beyond the rural villages of northern Israel and into every nation and every institution on earth. It would eventually change everything: politics, art, science, law, the rules of warfare, philosophy, the relations between men and women, and the family.
But the question has always been: how? Beyond the piety of believers and the doubts of skeptics lies an enduring mystery: What did Jesus do and say, in as little as one year and a maximum of three years, that could possibly have had such an impact? How did the community he somehow gathered together so quickly—made up of semi-literate fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, wealthy widows, day laborers and even Roman soldiers—give birth to the spiritual revolution that became Christianity?
This book is an attempt to answer that question. It is a narrative retelling of the founding of the earliest Christian community more than two thousand years ago, based on recent discoveries in archaeology and New Testament studies. My goal is to help modern readers better appreciate how the Jesus movement began and why it succeeded—and to fill in many of the details of the story that were left out of the New Testament. My ultimate intent is to show that Christianity was not an accident. Jesus of Nazareth had a specific mission—a deliberate plan that he knew would end in the cross (Matt. 10:17–19), but which was not limited to the cross. The evidence shows that Jesus set out to create a community dedicated to carrying on his teaching and mission throughout time and across the entire world.