When writing about the life of Jesus, it is just about impossible to know many of the huge and important facts about that life. One thing that scholars are in the habit of doing nowadays is admitting that because a story is told in the New Testament, it is true and happened just as the Gospel says.
For example, although on one hand we no longer believe in demonic possession, we accept the stories of Jesus exorcising demons from human beings. The best we can say honestly is that we don't know what happened. In one story it is clear that a young man who was afflicted with seizures was not possessed--he just had a seizure disorder:
"When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately the entire crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed, and running up to him, they greeted him.
"And he asked them, 'What are you arguing about with them?' And one of the crowd answered him, 'Teacher, I brought my son to you, who has a mute spirit. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were not able.'
Answering them Jesus said, 'Oh unbelieving generation! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him to me.' And they brought the boy to him.
"And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed him; and falling on the ground, the boy began to roll about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, 'How long has this been happening to him?' And he answered, 'Since childhood; indeed frequently it has even cast him into fire and into water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.'
"And Jesus said to him, 'If I can! All things are possible for the one who has faith.' Immediately the father of the boy cried out and said, 'I believe; help my unbelief!'
"When Jesus saw that a crowd was quickly gathering, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, 'Mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again!'
"After crying out and convulsing him violently, the spirit came out; and the boy looked like a corpse, so that many were saying that he was dead. But Jesus, taking him by the hand, lifted him up, and he stood up.
"And when they had entered the house, his disciples asked him in private, 'Why were we not able to cast it out?' And he said to them, 'This kind cannot come out except by prayer.'" [Mark 9:14-29]
Apparently this incident happened during an interval when Jesus had sent his disciples out to minister in the community; but there is more to it than that. This story simply moves us on to whether or not Jesus cured epilepsy, and if so, how. The most we can say is that the mind-body connection seems to be much more powerful than we can understand.
Since the beginning of the research, begun by the formidable mind of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and continued by the Jesus Seminar, effort has been made to do two things: reconstruct the real Jesus, and reconstruct the story of his life. These efforts are both impeded by the fact that there is no accepted record of the first thirty years of his life, except for the episode of visiting Jerusalem, when he is said to have lingered at the Temple after his mother and father left for home.
Thus we get stories about Jesus visiting Japan, or living with the Essene community--which he could have done, sure, but you can't base dogma on it. Some things we notice, like the fact that Jesus was occasionally referred to as a rabbi (or as teacher, as in the translation above), but we don't have any records that he actually was formally prepared and admitted into Judaism as a rabbi.
In his historical context, had Jesus been an actual rabbi, he would have had to have been married, which has given rise to an cottage industry of authors writing books about whom his wife was, with Mary Magdalene as the lead contestant. And that is based on a Gospel that was not admitted into the Canon of Scripture because it was not considered historic.
So the fact-based scholars have evolved this scenario for Jesus' life. He was born to Mary by an unidentified father who was not Joseph. Nevertheless, the circumstances of his conception and birth were such that Mary was "under the Law" and not threatened with being publicly executed for committing adultery. (That's another article.)
As an adult, Jesus became a follower of John the Baptist, who preached apocalypticism. Both John, who was Jesus' older cousin, and Jesus believed that they would not live to see their old age because the Kingdom would come at almost any moment and certainly soon. Upon John's death, which must have been devastating to his followers who expected him to be there for the Kingdom Coming, Jesus took up leadership of the group in some way.
After a period during which he withdrew for a period of mourning and re-evaluation, Jesus returned to begin his ministry. Whether he got all of John's group is not known, but he changed his mission to preach to the masses of Jewish Israelites. He told them that the Kingdom was at hand and that they must prepare for it by being found in obedience to the Law and treating each other humanely. This Jesus taught was a way of behaving the way a loving God would want them to behave.
His ministry was an apparent success, if the Gospels are to believed when they recount that he was followed on his preaching journeys by thousands of people, who encamped themselves nearby even when he was living on the road. He had a strange and compelling personal charisma, and a rapport that made everyone believe that he was sent from God in some way, although from the Letters of Paul we see that it doesn't seem to have been believed that he was born of a virgin mother. That doctrine came centuries later.
At the height of his popularity Jesus chose to observe the Passover in Jerusalem, and he went there only to be betrayed and arrested. At that point the Gospel is very clear: "They all forsook him and fled." Thus all the accounts of dialog and Last Words are speculation or, at best, legendary.
Jesus was crucified during the Passover weekend, but what became of his body is not known although there are strong beliefs that he was buried in a borrowed tomb. The recent claim that a "Jesus family tomb" was discovered in Jerusalem detracts from rather than fortifies this claim. A real "Jesus family tomb" would already have been in existence, on both sides of his family, and I can see no reason why a new tomb would be dedicated to Mary, Joseph, Jesus and whomever else. If his family did recover his body it is more likely that he would have been buried alone in accordance with the Jewish custom of burying immediately. Other family members would have been buried following the customs, which the unfortunate and unforeseen death of Jesus in Jerusalem precluded.
However, it is much more likely that his body was lost. It was customary for the bodies of criminals to be tossed into a lime pit, covered over and then covered again with more victims. If Jesus' family succeeded in recovering his body, there must have been collusion involving bribing soldiers, or orders from higher levels of authority. Perhaps Pontius Pilate and his wife, who may have been one of Jesus' followers, recovered the body and gave it to the family out of sympathy.
That is where the facts end and Christianity begins. At some point, probably months later in Galilee, it came to St. Peter that Jesus was not dead. In some sense that we don't fully understand, Peter saw through time and space and he saw Jesus alive. After that it was Peter who returned to Jerusalem, galvanized and re-energized Jesus' followers, and began the process that still continues today, that of spreading the Good News that Jesus is Lord of life and death.
Scientifically speaking, we don't know what properties a resurrected human body has, because our bodies are not resurrected, nor do we keep them; many people are cremated when they die and many others are buried. We have no experience base to understand whether a body can be resurrected, what the rules are about who can be resurrected, and what one can do if and when their dead body becomes a resurrected human body. We do not know. We don't get back into our bodies when we die.
What we do see are many manifestations of spirits who are no longer attached to their bodies, and once again we do not know what the rules are, what different kinds of spirits exist, and what powers those various kinds of spirits have. Some people report that they are given messages by spirits; others report that they can communicate with them; still others report spirits as seeming to be oblivious to their surroundings. Some spirits seem to be malevolent. Some spirits don't seem to know that they are dead.
These bare bones of the Jesus story are far from dull; on the contrary, theology has thrived over the centuries trying to figure out what happened. I have my theology, which I share in this column. But I don't preach my theology, I share it and don't make dogma out of it and tell anyone that they had better agree with me or else. And I think that the sooner we abandon that practice, the better--sharing ideas provides much more food for thought than insisting on your own.