A Timeline for Jesus

Last time we thought about drawing a timeline for Jesus' life on a piece of paper. If you haven't done it then you might like to draw one before reading the rest of this piece. If you have already drawn a timeline, and added-in all the events that you can think-of, or thought about what might go where, then you might like to consider what follows.

 

I hope you found this helpful. As Christians, engaging with the events in the life of Jesus is especially helpful to us when called upon to put across our Faith to others. This is even more the case in this present age when people are asking questions about religion, and some are endeavouring to reduce our Faith to the realm of fairytale.

Where to start and end?

"Where to begin the timeline?" is a good question. Perhaps you started with Jesus' birth, or maybe it was the Annunciation, or perhaps, like the writer of John, you started with the beginning of time itself and creation, since Jesus is the Word of God, and we read that "In the beginning was the Word..."
Likewise where should the line end? Hopefully we did not finish it with the Crucifixion, but perhaps it was the Ascension? Alternatively, since we believe that Jesus lives on today with God and working through us, the timeline should end with the present day, and on the understanding that it is not finished yet, since he will come again! In this case, considering the places that the timeline starts and finishes, the history of the World becomes part of the life of Jesus, a reminder that like it or not our World is inextricably bound to our Lord, who is its Saviour and Master.

Certainties and Uncertainties

So, how did you get on with ordering the events of Jesus' earthly li li¬as recorded in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and in the very start of the book of Acts? Whilst we can be sure of the relative position and order of some events relative to one another (for example the Annunciation and Jesus' birth must have become before His ministry, death and resurrection!), the actual order in which the miracles, parables etc happened can present us with problems.

Our view of the life of Jesus is a composite one taken from each of the books named above, since none of the gospels contains all the events of Jesus' earthly life and ministry. The four gospel writers were writing some time after the events, and were seeking to present the life of Jesus to different audiences. Mark's gospel, perhaps the first to be written about 35 or so years after the Ascension, has been said to have been written in a direct style to include some of the key events as its writer saw them (to record matters for posterity before the last eyewitnesses passed-on). The gospels of Matthew and Luke have been said to have been written for Jewish and Gentile audiences respectively, and therefore stress different points, whilst the writer of John (perhaps the last of the gospels to be written, at the end of that first century AD) seeks to emphasize to the early Christian Church, now beset by persecution, that Jesus is the Word of God.

As a result the story of Jesus' birth is only to be found in Matthew and Luke. Matthew mentions the Wise Men, and the flight to Egypt, but not the Shepherds. Luke mentions the Shepherds, but not the Wise Men or the flight to Egypt. Besides these most obvious differences there are others, e.g. Matthew writes of the healing of two blind men (Matt. 20, v.29-34{/bible}) where Mark 10, v.46-52{/bible} and Luke 18, v.35-43{/bible} speak of the healing of one man, whilst John does not mention the story at all.

Should we be worried about these discrepancies, or the fact that no gospel is fully definitive? Should we be worried that the gospels might not have been written by respectively Matthew (disciple of Jesus), John Mark (the boy who ran away when Jesus was arrested, and who later travelled with Paul), Luke (the doctor who travelled with Paul), or John (disciple of Jesus, and one of the apostles)? Should we be worried that no one can say for sure conclusively when each gospel was written, or in which order? Whilst our critics would have us believe that these are vital things, in an effort to play down the importance of what we believe, I think not.

The subject of who wrote what when (based, for instance, on prose style, and who might have known whom), and what events happened in which order, is a fascinating one, and the subject of much scholarship. However it is also the subject of revision and change as new research is made, and perhaps we shall never have any definitive answers. More important is the fundamental truth revealed to us about the life of Jesus and God's love for us that we read in those gospels, and indeed elsewhere in the Bible. That is a truth revealed to us and interpreted for us by God's Holy Spirit working though us and within us, for our God is a God who is still speaking to us today, including when we read His Word.

Perhaps we should also say that we are privileged to be able to draw from four different perspectives on the life of Jesus (which actually have a great deal in common) whereas, for instance, we only have one account to draw from for the lives of the patriarchs (Abraham et al) who founded the nation of Israel, in the form of the book of Genesis. Moreover the accounts of the life of Jesus were written at a time that was still quite close to the events, in comparison to some earlier books of the Bible (especially if, as has been suggested, the books of Samuel were the first to be written down).

Most significantly all four gospels give detailed accounts of Jesus' death and the Resurrection, which they all describe as a real, physical event. Whatever the order and details of the other events in Jesus' life, this is the pivotal point of our Faith, and is not confined to a mere handful of sentences in one book of the Bible.

So when our critics attempt to diminish our Faith by trying to make capital out of inconsistencies, we can point to the truth contained within the gospels, and the ever-relevant Good News of our redemption through Christ's death and Resurrection: a truth that our World needs as much now as it ever did.

Chris Noyce