He was the popular Galilean guru, arrested and killed in Judea. That's not nearly enough to explain Jesus' identity, but it's the minimum information sufficient to identify Jesus, distinguishing him from other famous gurus of his era. (Or prophets. Or rabbis. Or rabble-rousers. Or what-have-you's.) While other distinctive elements of Jesus' story are far more significant in explaining who he was and what he was all about, the basic geographic arc of Jesus' story, along with its corresponding good or ill fortune, was more than enough in the first century to let anyone know 'who he was', or at least who you were talking about.
While Judas "the Galilean" was also dispatched by Romans in Judea, he was not known to be popular in Galilee, nor did he generate much influence around his true home of Gamala in Gaulanitis, until his sons were fully grown, decades after Judas' death. While Judas "son of Ezekias" gained influence in Galilee, he was not known to show much interest in Judea, or to make any impact there, and he was destroyed by the Romans who burned Sepphoris. While John the Baptist was arrested in Judea, he was beheaded in Antipas' territory by the Herodian tetrarch. John's popularity spanned both Judea and Galilee, but his famous end was not blamed on Judea. And although, years later, one Theudas was also killed by the Romans in or near Judea (or at least, near the Jordan), this mysterious man was never said to be anyone among the Galileans, much less even a Galilean himself.
Again, that Jesus was "the popular Galilean guru executed in Judea" is enough to distinguish him against anyone else with remote similarities. It is further unique that Jesus was arrested and pushed toward Roman justice because of the Judean authorities, according to the Gospels.
At any rate, no other would-be or so-called revolutionary guru met his end in Judea, before 67 to 70 AD.
Along with Judas of Gamala, Jesus was the only other significant outsider who took his mission and message evangelistically into Judea, and the only other rebellious-type to be taken down within Judea itself. But unlike Judas of Gamala, Jesus was the one and only such figure to be arrested and dealt with by the Judean authorities primarily. This makes all the more sense given that Jesus’ chief target of criticism was not Rome or Caesar, but those would be authorities over Judaism, the authorities whom Jesus’ followers believed were ruining the glorious nature of what Judaism was supposed to be all about, truly.
At least, all this was the story being told at the time and for years afterwards. Setting aside today’s scholarly discussions about imperial criticism and Roman responsibility for Jesus death, the point at hand is that Matthew’s original audience was being told a story whose basic parameters were extremely familiar.
The record supports this and the Gospels themselves [that is, their strong narrative reliance on Jesus' geographical story-arc; that is, such reliance, itself] strongly suggest that this pattern was indeed fully unique.
Who was Jesus? In the most primary of identifications possible, Jesus was the popular Galilean guru, the one arrested and killed in Judea, reportedly due to machinations of the Judean authorities. People said many things about Jesus' identity, but posterity recalled one basic set of parameters by which to identify Jesus.
Therefore, whenever a Gospel writer plays up the contrast between Judea and Galilee, whatever else that Gospel writer may be doing, he is, at the very least, building upon information the audience already knows.
And that tiny point is my clever segue for another blog post, in days to come...