He is perhaps the single most famous person ever to walk the Earth, but certain aspects of Jesus’ story may yet take you by surprise. Let’s take a closer look…
1 Jesus had brothers and sisters
The New Testament explicitly mentions that Jesus had brothers called James, Joses, Jude and Simon, along with at least two sisters who go unnamed. Far from being particularly dazzled by their sibling, they initially 'did not believe in him'. At one point, they’re even a little critical of Jesus’ methods, advising him to go to more populous areas because 'no one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret'.
It’s important to note that Christians do differ on the precise nature of their relationship with Jesus. Many believe they were indeed the children of Mary and Joseph, conceived in a conventional way after the miraculous virgin birth of Christ. However, many others believe Mary remained a virgin all her life. According to this school of thought, the words 'brothers' and 'sisters' were being used in a broader sense, referring either to Jesus’ cousins or step-siblings (potentially Joseph’s offspring from a prior marriage).
2 Jesus went missing as a child
Mary and Joseph literally lost Jesus when he was a young boy, forcing them to mount what was essentially a missing person enquiry. Not counting the Nativity, this remarkable incident is the one and only story from Jesus’ childhood in the gospels. It begins with Mary, Joseph, the 12-year-old Jesus and several of their friends and relatives visiting Jerusalem for Passover. Later, as the group is travelling back, Mary and Joseph are alarmed to realise that Jesus isn’t among them.
A three-day search of Jerusalem ensues, with the panic-stricken parents finally finding Jesus in the Temple, 'sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking questions'. When Mary scolds the boy for lingering behind and worrying everyone, Jesus simply shrugs off her concern, and is altogether bemused there was so much fuss and bother over his disappearance.
3 Jesus didn’t choose all the Apostles
It’s well known that the closest followers of Jesus were the Twelve Apostles. But what’s often forgotten is that there was a thirteenth individual who became an Apostle. What’s more, he got the gig by luck of the draw.
Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascent to Heaven, the Apostles had to take time out from all these miraculous events to deal with a pretty mundane administrative issue. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus (and ensuing death) meant the eleven remaining Apostles had a vacancy to fill. With Jesus no longer around to select the right man, the Apostles took it upon themselves to nominate two candidates, who then drew lots for the job. The winner, a man called Matthias, became the only Apostle not to have been personally picked by Jesus.
4 Jesus existed
Whether or not you believe in the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, or the very existence of God, one thing is pretty much beyond academic debate: Jesus existed. Almost all serious mainstream scholars agree on this fact. And, while the biographical value of the gospels is an open question, scholars generally agree that Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion really did happen. The opposing view – that Jesus was an entirely made-up, mythological figure – is known as the 'Christ myth theory' and not taken seriously by mainstream academics, whether atheists or otherwise.
Jesus is mentioned in non-Christian texts, notably writings by the first century historians Josephus and Tacitus. Historians also apply the 'criterion of embarrassment', observing that many key elements of the Jesus story would not have been included by myth-makers looking to prop up a fictional, all-powerful Messiah. One prime example is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which puts the 'hero' of the story in an inconveniently inferior position. Another is the execution by crucifixion, which was regarded at the time as a particularly degrading way to die.
5 Jesus appeared in the Old Testament (possibly)
Did Jesus really make cameo appearances in the Old Testament? Many of the earliest and most influential Christian theologians thought so, and the theory is still going strong today. It focuses on an enigmatic figure called the Angel of the Lord, who visits Abraham, Moses and other major players in the Old Testament.
What makes the Angel of the Lord so mysterious, even controversial, is that he appears to be more powerful and authoritative than other angels. In fact, he openly identifies with God. 'I make a vow by my own name,' the Angel tells Moses at one point. 'The Lord is speaking.'
Might the Angel have been an ancient manifestation of Jesus before he took human form? It’s certainly a fascinating theory, whose proponents often point out that the Angel of the Lord doesn’t make any more appearances in the New Testament, perhaps because he now exists in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. And on that subject…
6 Nazareth was nothing special
The Bible isn’t particularly known for its witty wisecracks, but one minor figure named Nathanael certainly brings a little sass when he first hears news of a miracle worker known as 'Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph'.
'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' Nathanael retorts, presumably with a dramatic eyeroll. His scepticism is short lived, and he goes on to become a disciple. But Nathanael’s little jibe is a reminder to us that, while the moniker 'Jesus of Nazareth' carries such mythic resonance now, it would have simply marked Jesus out as a small town hick at the time. That said, today’s Nazareth is a far cry from the tiny and unremarkable village Jesus would have known, and is the bustling capital of Arab culture in Israel.