The firmness, clearness, and even fullness with which the figure of Jesus is delineated in the sources, and the variety of activities though which it is dramatized, do not insure that the data given should suffice for drawing up a properly so-called ‘life of Jesus." The data in the sources are practically confined to the brief period of Jesus’ public work. Only a single incident is recorded from His earlier life, and that is taken from His boyhood. So large a portion of the actual narrative, moreover, is occupied with His death that it might even be said the more that the whole narrative also leads up to the death as the life’s culmination that little has been preserved concerning Jesus but the circumstances which accompanied His birth and the circumstances which led up to and accompanied His death. The incidents which the narrators record, again, are not recorded with a biographical intent, and are not selected for their biographical significance, or ordered so as to present a biographical result: in the case of each Evangelist they serve a particular purpose which may employ biographical details, but is not itself a biographical end. In other words the Gospels are not formal biographies but biographical arguments a circumstance which does not affect the historicity of the incidents they select for record, but does affect the selection and ordering of these incidents. Mark has in view to show that this great religious movement in which he himself had a part had its beginnings in a divine interposition; Matthew, that this divine interposition was in fulfillment of the promises made to Israel; Luke, that it had as its end the redemption of the world; John, that the agent in it was none other than the Son of God himself. In the enforcement and illustration of their several themes each records a wealth of biographical details. But it does not follow that these details, when brought together and arranged in their chronological sequence, or even in their genetic order, will supply an adequate biography. The attempt to work them up into a biography is met, moreover, by a great initial difficulty. Every biographer takes his position, as it were, above his subject, who must live his life over again in his biographer’s mind; it is of the very essence of the biographer’s work thoroughly to understand his subject and to depict him as he understands him. What, then, if the subject of the biography be above the comprehension of his biographer? Obviously, in that case, a certain reduction can scarcely be avoided. This in an instance like the present, where the subject is a superhuman being, is the same as to say that a greater or lesser measure of rationalization, "naturalization," inevitably takes place. A true biography of a God-man, a biography which depicts His life from within, untangling the complex of motives which moved Him, and explaining His conduct by reference to the internal springs of action, is in the nature of the case an impossibility for men. Human beings can explain only on the basis of their own experiences and mental processes; and so explaining they instinctively explain away what transcends their experiences and confounds their mental processes. Seeking to portray the life of Jesus as natural, they naturalize it, that is, reduce it to correspondence with their own nature. Every attempt to work out a life of Christ must therefore face not only the insufficiency of the data, but the perennial danger of falsifying the data by an instinctive naturalization of them. If, however, the expectation of attaining a "psychological" biography of Jesus must be renounced, and even a complete external life can not be pieced together from the fragmentary communications of the sources, a clear and consistent view of the course of the public ministry of Jesus can still be derived from them. The consecution of the events can be set forth, their causal relations established, and their historical development explicated. To do this is certainly in a modified sense to outline "the life of Jesus," and to do this proves by its results to be eminently worth while.
A series of synchronism's with secular history indicated by Luke, whose historical interest seems more alert than that of the other evangelists, gives the needed information for placing such a "life" in its right historical relations. The chronological framework for the "life" itself is supplied by the succession of annual feasts which are recorded by John as occurring during Jesus’ public ministry. Into this framework the data furnished by the other Gospels which are not without corroborative suggestions of order, season of occurrence, and relations fit readily; and when so arranged yield so self-consistent and rationally developing a history as to add a strong corroboration of its trustworthiness. Differences of opinion respecting the details of arrangement of course remain possible; and these differences are not always small and not always without historical significance. But they do not affect the general outline or the main drift of the history, and on most points, even those of minor importance, a tolerable agreement exists. Thus, for example, it is all but universally allowed that Jesus was born c. 5 or 6 BC (year of Rome 748 or 749), and it is an erratic judgment indeed which would fix on any other year than 29 or 30 AD for his crucifixion. On the date of His baptism which determines the duration of his public ministry more difference is possible; but it is quite generally agreed that it took place late in 26 AD or early in 27. It is only by excluding the testimony of John that a duration of less than between two and three years can be assigned to the public ministry; and then only by subjecting the Synoptical narrative to considerable pressure. The probabilities seem strongly in favor of extending it to three years and some months. The decision between a duration of two years and some months and a duration of three years and some months depends on the determination of the two questions of where in the narrative of John the imprisonment of John the Baptist (Mt 4:12) is to be placed, and what the unnamed feast is which is mentioned in Jn 5:1. On the former of these questions opinion varies only between Jn 4:1-3 and Jn 5:1. On the latter a great variety of opinions exists: some think of Passover, others of Purim or Pentecost, or of Trumpets or Tabernacles, or even of the day of Atonement. On the whole, the evidence seems decisively preponderant for placing the imprisonment of the Baptist at Jn 4:1-3, and for identifying the feast of John v. 1 with Passover. In that case, the public ministry of Jesus covered about three years and a third, and it is probably not far wrong to assign to it the period lying between the latter part of 26 AD and the Passover of 30 AD.
The material supplied by the Gospel narrative distributes itself naturally under the heads of (1) the preparation (2) the ministry, and (3) the consummation. For the first twelve or thirteen years of Jesus’ life nothing is recorded except the striking circumstances connected with His birth, and a general statement of His remarkable growth. Similarly for His youth, about seventeen years and a half, there is recorded only the single incident, at its beginning, of His conversation with the doctors in the temple. Anything like continuous narrative begins only with the public ministry, in, say, December, 26 AD. This narrative falls naturally into four parts which may perhaps be distinguished as (a) the beginning of the Gospel, forty days, from December, 26 to February, 27; (b) the Judean ministry, covering about ten months, from February, 27 to December, 27; (c) the Galilean ministry, covering about twenty-two months, from December, 27 to September, 29; (d) the last journeys to Jerusalem, covering some six months, from September, 29 to the Passover of (April) 30. The events of this final Passover season, the narrative of which becomes so detailed and precise that the occurrences from day to day are noted, constitute, along with their sequences, what is here called "the consummation." They include the events which led up to the crucifixion of Jesus, the crucifixion itself, and the manifestations which He gave of Himself after His death up to His ascension. So preponderating was the interest which the reporters took in this portion of the "life of Christ," that is to say, in His death and resurrection, that about a third of their whole narrative is devoted to it. The ministry which leads up to it is also, however, full of incident. What is here called "the beginning of the Gospel" gives, no doubt, only the accounts of Jesus’ baptism and temptation. Only meager information is given also, and that by John alone, of the occurrences of the first ten months after His public appearance, the scene of which lay mainly in Judea. With the beginning of the ministry in Galilee, however, with which alone the Synoptic Gospels concern themselves, incidents become numerous. Capernaum now becomes Jesus’ home for almost two full years; and no less than eight periods of sojourn there with intervening circuits going out from it as a center can be traced. When the object of this ministry had been accomplished Jesus finally withdraws from Galilee and addresses Himself to the preparation of his followers for the death He had come into the world to accomplish; and this He then brings about in the manner which best subserves His purpose.
Into the substance of Jesus’ ministry it is not possible to enter here. Let it only be observed that it is properly called a ministry. He Himself testified that He came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and He added that this ministry was fulfilled in His giving His life as a ransom for many. In other words, the main object of His work was to lay the foundations of the kingdom of God in His blood. Subsidiary to this was His purpose to make vitally known to men the true nature of the kingdom of God, to prepare the way for its advent in their hearts, and above all, to attach them by faith to His person as the founder and consummator of the kingdom. His ministry involved, therefore, a constant presentation of Himself to the people as the promised One, in and by whom the kingdom of God was to be established, a steady "campaign of instruction" as to the nature of the kingdom which He came to found, and a watchful control of the forces which were making for His destruction, until, His work of preparation being ended, He was ready to complete it by offering Himself up. The progress of His ministry is governed by the interplay of these motives. It has been broadly distributed into a year of obscurity, a year of popular favor, and a year of opposition; and if these designations are understood to have only a relative applicability, they may be accepted as generally describing from the outside the development of the ministry. Beginning first in Judea Jesus spent some ten months in attaching to Himself His first disciples, and with apparent fruitlessness proclaiming the kingdom at the center of national life. Then, moving north to Galilee, He quickly won the ear of the people and carried them to the height of their present receptivity; whereupon, breaking from them, He devoted Himself to the more precise instruction of the chosen band He had gathered about Him to be the nucleus of His Church. The Galilean ministry thus divides into two parts, marked respectively by more popular and more intimate teaching. The line of division falls at the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, which, as marking a crisis in the ministry, is recorded by all four Evangelists, and is the only miracle which has received this fourfold record. Prior to this point, Jesus’ work had been one of gathering disciples; subsequently to it, it was a work of instructing and sifting the disciples whom He had gathered. The end of the Galilean ministry is marked by the confession of Peter and the transfiguration, and after it nothing remained but the preparation of the chosen disciples for the death, which was to close His work; and the consummation of His mission in His death and rising again.
The instruments by which Jesus carried out his ministry were two, teaching and miracles. In both alike He manifested His deity. Wherever He went the supernatural was present in word and deed. His teaching was with authority. In its insight and foresight it was as supernatural as the miracles themselves; the hearts of men and the future lay as open before Him as the forces of nature lay under His control; all that the Father knows He knew also, and He alone was the channel of the revelation of it to men. The power of His "But I say unto you" was as manifest as that of His compelling "Arise and walk." The theme of His teaching was the kingdom of God and Himself as its divine founder and king. Its form ran all the way from crisp gnomic sayings and brief comparisons to elaborate parables and profound spiritual discussions in which the deep things of God are laid bare in simple, searching words. The purport of His miracles was that the kingdom of God was already present in its King. Their number is perhaps usually greatly underestimated. It is true that only about thirty or forty are actually recorded. But these are recorded only as specimens, and as such they represent all classes. Miracles of healing form the preponderant class; but there are also exorcisms, nature-miracles, raisings of the dead. Besides these recorded miracles, however, there are frequent general statements of abounding miraculous manifestations. For a time disease and death must have been almost banished from the land. The country was thoroughly aroused and filled with wonder. In the midst of this universal excitement when the people were ready to take Him by force and make Him King He withdrew Himself from them, and throwing His circuits far afield, beyond the bruit and uproar, addressed Himself to preparing His chosen companions for His great sacrifice first leading them in the so-called "later Galilean ministry" (from the feeding of the 5,000 to the confession at Caesarea Philippi) to a better apprehension of the majesty of His person as the Son of God, and of the character of the kingdom He came to found, as consisting not in meat and drink but in righteousness; and then, in the so-called "Peraean ministry" (from the confession at Caesarea Philippi to the final arrival at Jerusalem) specifically preparing them for His death and resurrection. Thus He walked straightforward in the path He had chosen, and His choice of which is already made clear in the account of His temptation, set at the beginning of His public career; and in His own good time and way in the end forcing the hand of His opponents to secure that he should die at the Passover shed His blood as the blood of the new covenant sacrifice for the remission of sins. Having power thus to lay down His life, He had power also to take it again, and in due time He rose again from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the majesty on high, leaving behind Him His promise to come again in His glory, to perfect the kingdom He had inaugurated.
It is appropriate that this miraculous life should be set between the great marvels of the virgin-birth and the resurrection and ascension. These can appear strange only when the intervening life is looked upon as that of a merely human being, endowed, no doubt, not only with unusual qualities, but also with the unusual favor of God, yet after all nothing more than human and therefore presumably entering the world like other human beings, and at the end paying the universal debt of human nature. From the standpoint of the evangelical writers, and of the entirety of primitive Christianity, which looked upon Jesus not as a merely human being but as God himself come into the world on a mission of mercy that involved the humiliation of a human life and death, it would be this assumed community with common humanity in mode of entrance into and exit from the earthly life which would seem strange and incredible. The entrance of the Lord of Glory into the world could not but be supernatural; His exit from the world, after the work which He had undertaken had been performed, could not fail to bear the stamp of triumph. There is no reason for doubting the trustworthiness of the narratives at these points, beyond the anti-supernaturalistic instinct which strives consciously or unconsciously to naturalize the whole evangelical narrative. The "infancy chapters" of Luke are demonstrably from Luke’s own hand, bear evident traces of having been derived from trustworthy sources of information, and possess all the authority which attaches to the communications of a historian who evinces himself sober, careful, and exact, by every historical test. The parallel chapters of Matthew, while obviously independent of those of Luke recording in common with them not a single incident beyond the bare fact of the virgin-birth are thoroughly at one with them in the main fact, and in the incidents they record fit with remarkable completeness into the interstices of Luke’s narrative. Similarly, the narratives of the resurrection, full of diversity in details as they are, and raising repeated puzzling questions of order and arrangement, yet not only bear consentient testimony to all the main facts, but fit into one another so as to create a consistent narrative which has moreover the support of the contemporary testimony of Paul. The persistent attempts to explain away the facts so witnessed or to substitute for the account which the New Testament writers give of them some more plausible explanation, as the naturalistic mind estimates plausibility, are all wrecked on the directness, precision, and copiousness of the testimony; and on the great effects which have flowed from this fact in the revolution wrought in the minds and lives of the apostles themselves, and in the revolution wrought through their preaching of the resurrection in the life and history of the world. The entire history of the world for 2,000 years is the warranty of the reality of the resurrection of Christ, by which the forces were let loose which have created it. "Unique spiritual effects," it has been remarked, with great reasonableness, "require a unique spiritual cause; and we shall never understand the full significance of the cause, if we begin by denying or minimizing its uniqueness."