I started my series with a look at some of the early non-Biblical references to Jesus Christ, which show that he was indeed a real person who lived at the start of the first century. So if anyone tells you he never even existed, it will be obvious that they do not know what they are talking about.
This time I want to just briefly touch on the subject of recent theories and claims about who Jesus was and who he was not. I’m no expert on this subject, so I have to fall back on the works of those who are and who claim to be – but don’t we all?
One of the strange alleged sayings of Jesus which make up “The Gospel of Thomas” reads like this:
“Every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven” 1.
It’s always amazed me that people will willingly believe anything about Jesus except what is written in the Biblical gospels. Large numbers of people who had never been interested in Jesus were quick to latch on to Michael Baigent’s “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, published in the eighties. When I read it twenty-two years ago I was struck by the lengths that some people will go to to attack the Bible. In Baigent’s fanciful construct, Jesus survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdelene, moved to France (where he no doubt nibbled on garlic and cheese and guzzled gallons of wine), raised a family and then moved on to India, or Egypt, or Masada, or somewhere. If this were a true story, then almost all of the Bible would be untrue, and lo and behold, Baigent’s book is true instead.
The number of theories about who Jesus was are so numerous you would need a calculator to count them-if you wanted to waste your time on such an endeavor. The old defense that some ministers and believers still use (which is valid), that Jesus was either lunatic, liar or Lord, and could not be just a “good man”, just won’t “cut it” any longer. The world is (or thinks it is) just too sophisticated for that now, and demands much more criticism and scrutiny. The prevailing view of those who refuse to regard the Bible as anything other than fiction is that Jesus was misinterpreted, misquoted, misrepresented, and misunderstood.
Many people are convinced that all the “experts” know beyond a shadow of doubt that Jesus was just a man, and that the Bible story has been invented and altered many times. This is partly because most producers of TV documentaries, and most book publishers have their own bias against Christianity, and to be fair, most people never get the chance to hear the evidence for the Biblical Christ. Instead, Jesus was a radical, perhaps: a progressive preacher of socialism. He was a rebel standing against political oppression; a prophet; a mystic, or even a magician. He was anything but the Son of God of course. Again, even given the choice, I believe that many people choose the experts or the evidence which supports their worldview and their preference.
Being one of those people fortunate enough to be exposed to some of the evidence for the Biblical Christ, I wish to share a little of it. Of course, the Christian lives by faith and not by sight, but that’s no reason, as some believe, to ignore the evidence. Evidence is not sinful: it isn’t anti-faith, but complements faith. For the Christian there are numerous evidences to complement our faith. For example, archeology validates people, places and events recorded in the Bible. Another evidence that constantly amazes me is predictive prophecy in the Bible, some of which has been fulfilled, and some of which appears close to fulfillment. See my post on Jerusalem.
The Christian is indebted to people like Lee Strobel who make the evidence for Christ accessible to the man on the street. Strobel’s books, such as “The Case for Christ”, and “The Case for the Real Jesus” answer many of the contemporary attacks on the Biblical Jesus. Having been an award-winning investigative journalist, he is qualified to examine the claims and the evidence, and he does it by interviewing several credentialed scholars. I want to very briefly summarize some of that information, and look quicky at one or two other works also.
In his introduction to “The Case for the Real Jesus”, Strobel notes that “scholars and popular writers are seeking to debunk the traditional Christ” 2.
I’ve observed that people are hungry for any view of Jesus which does away with the Biblical one: they’ll even believe two or more mutually contradictory theories, just as long as Jesus is not seen to be the Son of God.
In 1945 thirteen papyrus codices were found in Egypt. They are known as the Gnostic texts. These Coptic translations are generally dated to around AD 350-400, with some evidence that their originals were written considerably earlier. Some scholars have taken these texts and made claims which often involve the rejection of Biblical content, core traditional doctrines, and the idea that there were many very confused and contrdictory views of who Jesus was in the early years. More than that, some claim that the Biblical view of Christ was later invented and forced upon the world, perhaps even centuries after the life of Jesus, while the Gnostic texts were hidden away or burned. In short, Jesus was not the Son of God, but a bearer of spiritual insight.
Such claims are fuelling a renewed interest in Gnosticism: the belief that we are to be rescued from our evil world by a secret knowledge, or in the Greek, “gnosis”. This secret knowledge reveals to the chosen that they have a divine identity deep down inside. Jesus was merely a revealer of that knowledge, and not a savior who died for our sins. Doctrines such as the resurrection are considered to be symbolic only.
Constant attacks against the Bible include claims that it cannot be trusted, that there are ways to explain away the resurrection, that Christian beliefs were copied from Pagan religions, and that Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill messianic prophecies. These attacks come from individuals and groups such as the “Jesus Seminar”. The Seminar is a gathering of academics who have “voted” on each supposed saying and action of Jesus, using colored beads, to decide whether they are really his words and actions or not. Their results would reduce the New Testament to a very small booklet if all the “inaccuracies” were to be removed. Their proclamations are then broadcast and printed as fact.
CRAIG A EVANS
As an example of the kind of material found in Strobel’s books, I will review a few parts of his interview with Craig Evans.
Craig received a Masters degree and a doctorate from the same university which produced some of the members of the Jesus Seminar. In Strobel’s “The Case for the Real Jesus”, Evans observes:
“If you’re hoping to get on the network news – well, news has to be new. Nobody is going to get excited if you say the traditional view of the gospels is correct…”3.
Evans says that the Jesus Seminar takes Jesus out of his Jewish context and puts him into a Greco-Roman world, turning him into a Western academic-just like them. Surprised?
He then outlines the reasons that he does not accept the claims that the Gnostic Gospels are important or on a par with the synoptic gospels, and says:
“They’re written in a later period of time- too late to be historically reliable. They were written from other places with strange and alien contexts. We find inaccuracies at key points…”4.
Strobel mentions the fact that some scholars early-date the Gnostic gospels, and claim that there were numerous differing versions of Christianity. Evans answers:
“That’s not true at all….This is the product of a modern agenda – a politically correct, multicultural agenda motivated by sympathy for marginalized groups. It’s the attitude that says diversity is always good, truth is negotiable, and every opinion is equally valid” 5.
Evans believes that the core message of Christianity, as found in reliable gospels, is that Jesus is the Messiah-God’s Son. He died on the cross and thereby saved humanity, and he rose from the dead 6.
When Strobel mentions the claim of some that the gospel of Thomas was written around AD 50 to 70, Evans answers that the claim is “absurd”, and puts the date of its writing at 175 to 200. Those who did mention Thomas over the centuries did not believe it went back to Thomas at all. He concludes by saying:
“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were earlier than all these other gospels, and they have credible connections with the first generation, apostolic, eyewitness sources” 7.
He believes that the synoptic gospels were written within a generation of Jesus’ ministry, and John within two. In other words, they were close to the events.
Strobel goes on to ask questions about Baigent’s recent bestseller, “The Jesus Papers”, to which Evans remarks:
“The flimsiness of the entire thing is just ridiculous” 8.
To the claim in “The Da Vinci Code” that Constantine collated the books of the Bible in the fourth century and burned all the alternative gospels, Evans says:
“That’s just nonsense…fictional material in Dan Brown’s book. It isn’t legitimate history written by historians who knew what they were talking about” 9.
You can read Strobel’s interview with Evans to get the detailed reasoning on these matters. Other scholars interviewed in “The Case for the Real Jesus”, who are equally supportive of the Biblical account of Jesus rather than the claims of the likes of the Jesus Seminar and the Neo-Gnostics include the following:
– Daniel B Wallace, PH. D., a world expert in ancient Greek and a foremost authority on textual criticism;
– Michael Licona, M.A., PH. D. A former black-belt instructor in tae kwon do, Licona debates at university campuses and on TV. He specializes in defending the truth of the resurrection;
– Edwin M Yamauchi, PH. D. Born into a Japanese-Buddhist family, now a Christian. His doctorate is in Mediterranean studies;
– Michael L Brown, PH. D. As a teen Brown was a heroin addict and a burglar. He has a dramatic salvation story. His doctorate is in Near Eastern languages and Literatures from New York University;
– Paul Copan, PH. D. His doctorate is in Philosophy. He is an author and lecturer.
Scholars interviewed in Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” and who also support the Biblical Jesus, include:
– Craig L. Blomberg, PH. D. His doctorate is in New Testament from Aberdeen University in Scotland. He has served as senior research fellow at Tynedale House at Cambridge University, England.
– Bruce M Metzger, PH. D. His doctorate is from Princeton, and he has honorary doctorates from five other universities, including St Andrews in Scotland and the University of Munster in Germany. He was a scholar at Tynedale House, Cambridge University.
– John McRay, PH. D. His doctorate is from the University of Chicago;
– Gregory A Boyd PH. D., with a Masters from Yale University and a doctorate from Princeton;
– Ben Witherington III PH. D., with a doctorate from Durham, England.
GARY R HABERMAS
Gary Habermas’ credentials include a D.D. from Emmanuel College, Oxford England, and a Ph. D. from Michigan State University.
In his book “The Historical Jesus”, Habermas deals with several claims which attempt to dismantle the Biblical Jesus or debunk him altogether. He states that while the earliest Gnostic gospels are dated to AD 140-200, the canonical gospels (those in the Bible) can be dated at AD 65-100, (10) and he writes that the “Gnostic Christians” were not around when the canonical books were written. He declares that the canonical gospels are far more authoritative, and that the New Testament canon was decided early on, and not in the third or fourth centuries.
In comparison to the Gnostic gospels, Habermas states:
“…the canonical Gospels are both historically reliable and simply much closer to the authority of Jesus Himself”….”the traditional authorship of each gospel is still defended by outstanding scholars” 11.
Habermas considers the testimony of the New Testament (a set of documents in itself), and of the Church Fathers. For example, Clement of Rome, around 95 AD, made an important reference to the “Gospel”. On other occasions Clement quoted various teachings of Jesus found in all three synoptic gospels.
He writes of the early Christian creeds, dated to early in the first century, saying that the earliest recount the death and resurrection of Jesus:
“The two most common elements in these creeds concerned the death and resurrection of Jesus and his resultant deity. Thus we note the major interest in the life and work of Jesus Christ” 12.
Habermas lists the creeds from the New Testament and explains why they are known to have been written very early in the first century. Not only so, but the creeds would have been in verbal use for years before being written down:
“Therefore, we are dealing with material that proceeds directly from the events in question”…The facts are also… reported directly by the eyewitnesses themselves” 13
DARRELL L BOCK
Darrell Bock has a BA from the University of Texas, a Th. M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a PH. D. from Aberdeen University, Scotland.
Bock examines twelve New Testament events using scholarly methods and considering modern critical views – or as he calls it- examination “by the rules”. His conclusion:
“They affirm to us that the Jesus of history links to and discloses the Christ of faith. Jesus Christ was sent to reveal the living God and point us into the way of life. This is who Jesus was – and is” 14.
1 Lee Strobel “The Case for the Real Jesus” (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530, Copyright 2007 by Lee Strobel) page 27
2 Ibid, page 13
3 Ibid, page 32
4 Ibid, page 33
5 Ibid, page 34
6 Ibid page 35
7 Ibid, page 42
8 Ibid, page 52
9 Ibid, page 59
10 Gary R. Habermas “The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Lilfeof Christ” (College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, Missouri, Copyright 1996 by Gary Habermas) pp 106, 107
12 Ibid, page 144
13 Ibid, page 156
14 Darrell L Bock “Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith” (Howard Books, New York, NY., Copyright 2012 by Darrell Bock) page 214