The central figure of the medieval church died almost half a millennium before the date usually given for the beginning of the Middle Ages. Enigmatic as it may sound, Christ was born Before Christ. When in the sixth century Dionysius Exiguus used the birth of Christ to date the beginning of the Christian era, he mistakenly believed that Christ was born in the Roman year 754 ab urbe condita (‘from the founding of the city’), and that year is called the first year of the Christian era: AD 1. In fact, King Herod, during whose reign Christ was born, died in the Roman year 750, and the date given by modern scholars for Christ’s birth generally falls between 8 and 4 BC. The date of Christ s death—and, indeed, his age at the time of his death—are not known for certain, but he was probably executed in the year AD 30.
To some of his fellow Jews Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah, the fulfilment of the prophecies, the saviour of his people, the expected of the nations. They believed he was born of a virgin, whose cult was to become a significant feature of medieval religious life. They heard him preach not a new law but the fulfilment of the Jewish law, summarized in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chs 5-6) in a doctrine of universal love: not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (lex talionis), but ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘love your enemies and pray for your persecutors’. When asked how to pray, he told them to say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ and gave the world the central prayer of the Christian faith. The political problems that he posed for the rabbinical leaders and for the Roman authorities led to his execution by crucifixion on a hill outside Jerusalem between two thieves. His followers were strongly motivated by the conviction that he had actually risen from the dead three days after his death. Many said that they saw him during the next forty days and that then on the fortieth day that they saw him ascend bodily into heaven. Huddled together in fear and confusion ten days later, his followers were said to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit under the appearance of tongues of fire.
They believed that the human race had fallen by reason of the sins of Adam and Eve, the consequences of which affected all peoples. To redeem mankind from this sin God sent his Son to earth in the form of a human being, whose death on the cross was a redemptive sacrifice for the whole human race. Christ,