The Real Jesus of History
by Dr. Joel Stephen Williams
Picture by Carline Hines - (c) Copyright 2,000
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Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were
handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after
investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you
may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Lk. 1:1-4; NRSV).
Was the real Jesus of history one and the same as the Christ of faith whom we read about in the New Testament and worship in the church? Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Is he really the divine Lord of lords? Or is it possible that the portrait of the divine Son of God is an
exaggeration, at best, or a complete fabrication, at worst, of the original Jesus? Could the one whom Christians worship be merely a mythological creation or is he real?Back to List of Longer Articles
These questions have exercised many great minds and have been the dominant issue in New Testament studies during this century. Between 1910 and 1950 approximately 350 lives of Jesus were published in the English language alone. Since then the numbers have increased
significantly.1 Not only are Christians writing about Jesus, but also Communists, Jews, atheists and agnostics are taking up their pens to paint a portrait of Jesus. Not only is this being done by the professional scholars, but also by playwrights, journalists and many
others not academically qualified to pursue such a study within the canons and controls of proper historical enquiry. This has led Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University to refer to some studies of Jesus as "Amateur Night."2 With a literature this immense it is obvious that
we can only note a few high points in the lesson today, but a bibliography at the end of the booklet provides sufficient resources for a more thorough investigation by those who are interested.
In the past decade these questions have escaped the confines of scholarly journals and scholarly discussions and exploded on the scene as a question of newsworthy interest equal to wars, politics and sports. We are used to seeing world leaders on the cover of national news
magazines, but Jesus has been making the cover of Time, Newsweek, and U. S. News & World Report with increasing regularity. Jesus has become the central character of musical and theatrical productions like Jesus Christ--Superstar. We are used to seeing television documentaries on Hitler, Roosevelt or Einstein, but Jesus is the subject of numerous similar productions in the past decade.
Why the upsurge of interest? Why is a 2,000 year old story suddenly newsworthy? Unfortunately the media has been used, even manipulated, by a group of liberal, skeptical scholars to attempt a major act of historical revision. Too many of these media studies of Jesus imply that New Testament scholarship as a whole has come to certain conclusions about Jesus. These conclusions are that Jesus was not divine, that he performed no miracles, that he was not raised from the dead, and that the Christ of faith is a mythological creation of the
early church. We are told that Jesus never did most of what the New Testament says he did and that he never said most of what the New Testament says he said. We are told that the Jesus who is worshipped in the churches is a figment of the naive, albeit pious, imagination of
unsophisticated people. As Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, claims: "The only Jesus most people want is the mythic one. They don't want the real Jesus. They want the one they can worship."3
Religious news is not usually very good for selling papers. It is boring unless there is a scandal to report. The members of the Jesus Seminar have been quite newsworthy, though. Where else will you get one who is supposed to be a university scholar of the Christian religion
saying something like this: "[Jesus was very likely] a party animal, somewhat shiftless, and disrespectful of the fifth commandment: Honor your father and mother."4 The impression has been given that university scholars are exposing the gullibility of churches and ministers. The Jesus Seminar members have portrayed themselves as martyrs for truth against an evil empire--the church. That makes good press. But the tragic part of it all is that many casual observers are fooled by the rhetoric, and they reject Jesus as a result.
A balanced view of what can be known and what can be believed
about Jesus is not being heard in much of the media. Because of "the sometimes grandiose claims made" by and for the skeptical, radical
historical reconstructionists "as representing critical New Testament scholarship," other New Testament scholars have gone on the attack
and responded that the Jesus Seminar, and others like them, do not represent New Testament scholarship as a whole. That remark was
made by a professor from Emory.5 Another recognized New Testament scholar called them "an academic disgrace."6 A professor from Duke
University said the case argued by the Jesus Seminar would not stand up in any court. He said that "many of its novel claims are at best
dubious."7 Many similar sentiments could be produced.
The public on the whole is confused. Believers tend to dismiss these historical revisions of Jesus but without much real understanding of
what is being said or how these scholars reach such skeptical conclusions. Unbelievers often accept these denials of the divinity of
our Lord, assuming that they are valid, reasoned, sound historical conclusions of scholars and that anyone who believes in Jesus is simply
naive. Because of this situation in our society at present, we here at University City Church of Christ thought it would be well to study the
The Two Extremes
One extreme in this debate is a radical skepticism. Ever since the publication of the writings of H. S. Reimarus in 1778, the belief of the
church that Jesus was and is the Christ, the divine Son of God, born of a virgin, pre-existent deity incarnate in human flesh, worker of
miracles, crucified for our sins, and resurrected to glory, has been under constant attack. The story of Jesus is undergoing a constant,
radical reconstruction at the hands of skeptical critics. This revision of the portrait of Jesus claims to get behind the later embellishments of
the original story to present the real Jesus of history. It is claimed that the Christ of faith, the Christ preached and worshipped in the
churches, bears little resemblance to the real Jesus of history. The simple story of a Galilean peasant was supposedly enlarged and
transformed into the story of a divine being.
The skeptical critics believe we can know almost nothing about the real Jesus of history. Dr. W. R. Inge, the former Dean of St. Paul's
Cathedral, was supposedly asked by a publisher to write a life of Jesus. He responded: "As there are no materials for a life of Christ, I regret
that I cannot comply with your request."8 Similarly, Rudolf Bultmann, the leading scholar of this century in demythologizing the story of
Jesus, declared: "I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus."9
What needs to be understood very clearly is that this radical, skeptical way of thinking about Jesus did not come about due to some
archeological discovery. It did not result from some historical document, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which called into question the
picture of Jesus in the four Gospels. It did not come into existence because something was discovered in the biblical text which disproved
what the church had always thought about Jesus. The skeptical view of Jesus is a historical reconstruction which is theory, and a tenuous one
at that, which is based on certain presuppositions. The skeptics begin by affirming that there are no miracles, nothing supernatural in this
world. Therefore, the story of Jesus cannot be true. They approach the text under the guise of doing dispassionate, unbiased historical
research, when from the beginning the game has been fixed.
Critical study forms theories and then tests those theories against the evidence to see which theory best explains the evidence. The theory
that Jesus actually was the divine Son of God is never given a chance to explain the evidence, because a presupposition eliminates it from
consideration before the test even begins. Thus the skeptical critics offer a variety of alternative explanations, most of which can be
summarized under one, single concept, their belief that the early church embellished the story of the real Jesus of history with later
additions. They believe it is the critic's job to peal away those later additions and expose the small kernel of truth that remains.
Since an anti-supernatural presupposition has skewed the skeptic's research from the beginning, it is not surprising that different scholars
find a different Jesus at the conclusion of their study. They are like people who look into a pool of water and observe a reflection of their
own image. The Jesus they rediscover is different from the Jesus of the four Gospels. He is also different from the reconstruction of other
critics, but he is very much like the Jesus each of the critics wants to find. Claude Montefiore, a liberal Jew, discovers that the real Jesus
was a liberal Jew. Another writer finds a Jesus who advocates "living at ease" and "floating in the womb of the universe," the perfect Jesus
for a new age world.10 Others find a politically correct Jesus who crusades for women's rights and the poor in a countercultural egalitarianism. And, of course, we must admit that many Christians begin with traditional presuppositions. Not surprisingly they find the
traditional Christ after a simple study which has not really confronted the problems and issues at hand.
The Jesus Seminar has warned others against finding a comfortable Jesus. That is good advice which the members of the Jesus Seminar
should have heeded themselves. When E. V. Rieu began a translation of the Gospels, his son is reported to have said: "It will be very
interesting to see what Father makes of the Gospels."11 It is very interesting to see what many have made of the Gospels. Most find the
Jesus that they want to find. Their reconstructions often tell us more about the historian than they do about Jesus. One of the most damaging
criticisms of these liberal reconstructions of the real Jesus of history is from the pen of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, who said:
"Why anyone should have troubled to crucify the Christ of Liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery."12 Similarly, one of the
greatest Jesus scholars of our generation, the Roman Catholic John Meier, said that "a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the
lilies of the field--such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one."13<br>
The other extreme which we need to avoid is a naive, untested, unexamined faith. When confronted with difficulties in the biblical text
or with the limitations of historical knowledge, this type of faith responds: "Well the Bible says it and I believe it and that settles it!" This type of faith is often a faith inherited from one's parents. It is
sufficient for some people for a whole lifetime, but for others it will not last. Some Christians with such a naive faith are unable to handle
a setting such as what many of you face on a daily basis on a state university campus. You and I both have seen too many people with a
naive faith simply walk away from the church at some point in their adult life. The cause for a sudden change to disbelief is often nothing
more than a brief encounter with an aggressive, skeptical person who throws one or two challenges their way which they can not handle.
Maybe many of these are what Ravi Zacharias calls the "silent
doubters in our midst." Zacharias says we need to answer their
questions first before we attempt to evangelize the world. And we will
not answer the ones among us who are questioning if we simply say:
"Just believe." If historical arguments are being used to deny
Christianity, historical arguments must be used to defend the faith.
Naively protesting "that historical study is irrelevant" will not do.14 As
the great scholar, J. B. Lightfoot, declared: "The abnegation of reason
is not the evidence of faith, but the confession of despair."15
One minister's discussion of the origin of the four Gospels is an
example of a tendency in this direction. He explains that most New
Testament scholars postulate that Mark was written first and that it was
used as a source for Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke are much
longer than Mark, however, so they must have obtained other
information from other sources. The extra material which they have in
common is called "Q" ("Q" being the first letter of the German word
for "source"). This material is primarily the sayings of Jesus. Whether
the source for these sayings was a written document or oral tradition
is very much a matter of debate among scholars. The other material in
Matthew is identified as "M" for Matthew's private source, and "L"
likewise for Luke.
This minister then ridicules this whole scenario: "Some who claim
to believe that the Bible is inspired of God have accepted these ideas
to explain how God (?) got His word to man." How does he respond
to these theories? Does he note that Luke tells us in his prologue that
others had written before him? Does this preacher note that Luke tells
us that he researched these earlier sources and investigated the
information in order to write the Gospel of Luke (Lk. 1:1-4)? No. He
quotes a passage from Jeremiah and another from the New Testament which are irrelevant. He simply says that the Bible is inspired. His
message seems to be: "Just believe the Bible because the Bible tells
you it is God's word."
This approach to faith is similar to the proverbial preacher who was
told that Moses and the children of Israel did not cross through the Red
Sea, but the "sea of reeds."16 Upon hearing this the preacher
supposedly proclaimed: "Praise God! It is an even greater miracle.
God drowned the Egyptian army in two inches of water." It is a sad
fact that radical, skeptical historical revisionists like the Jesus Seminar
gain credibility because they contrast themselves with this sort of naive
faith in fundamentalism. As Luke Timothy Johnson says in regard to
many in fundamentalism: "The Bible is less a text to be read than a
talisman to be invoked. The fundamentalists' claim to take the literal
meaning of the New Testament seriously is controverted by their
neglect of any careful or sustained reading."17
So a more acceptable approach, which avoids both the extremes of
radical skepticism and a naive faith, is to approach the New Testament
documents with an open mind, ready and willing to ask any question
in our search for truth. We must be willing to ask if there are
legitimate reasons for believing what the Bible has to say about Jesus.
Is blind faith the only option? Are the skeptics right in saying that the
only person who can believe is either a naive person or one who is
closed minded and unwilling to examine the facts? I submit to you that
reasonable faith is a viable option for the truth seeker today.
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What Can Be Known About Jesus From History?
We cannot prove everything in the Bible. The New Testament is
almost 2,000 years old. The real Jesus lived 2,000 years ago. There
are limitations to what one can know through historical inquiry. People
are still in sharp disagreement over events which happened within the lifetime of many of us such as the assassination of President John F.
Kennedy. How much more so is it going to be difficult to speak
conclusively concerning a person who lived 2,000 years ago? But while
the limitations of history do not allow us to speak absolutely, they do
not prevent our speaking of possibilities and probabilities.
The remarkable thing about this whole controversy is that the
skeptical revisionists reject almost in totality what the four Gospels say
about Jesus, but they then write a new history of Jesus which is based
upon surmise, speculation and theory. Their Jesus is supposedly based
on the very same Gospels they have rejected. They are "insisting on
discovering history where it cannot be found."18 If, for example, I
cannot prove the virgin birth of Jesus through historical analysis, is it
not also true that someone else cannot disprove the virgin birth of Jesus
by the same method? Both of us can only speak of possibilities and
probabilities. What is even more ridiculous about the Jesus Seminar
and several other radical revisionists is that they accept the Gospel of
Thomas as an equal or better source for information about Jesus than
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel of Thomas is from the
mid-second century or later and is possibly Gnostic. It is non-canonical, probably heretical in origin and dated fifty to one hundred
years later than the four Gospels. How in the name of common sense
can anyone equate it as a historical source to the four Gospels?
Much of the gospel story lies beyond the reach of historical inquiry.
For example, it can be established quite firmly as a historical fact that
a man named Jesus was crucified in the early first century. What
cannot be established as historical fact, because it lies outside the
bounds of such analysis, is that Jesus died for our sins and thereby
made atonement for mankind to God. While it is important that the
Christ of Christian faith be the same as and consistent with the real
Jesus of history, the Christ of faith is the living Lord of whom we
must say much more than we can say in a strict, limited historical
sense about Jesus.
But what arguments from history can be made about Jesus? Only
the barest of sketches can be allowed here. I do not have sufficient
time to go into the details of literary criticism, form criticism,
redaction criticism, and historical methodology. Neither is there time
to survey the literature on crucial questions such as the dating of New
Testament documents, the authorship of the four Gospels, the canon of
the New Testament, the evidence for Jesus outside the New Testament,19 and other equally important and related issues. But here
hopefully one can be pointed in the right direction for further study.
The four Gospels are a combination of history and commentary.
They are history written from the post-resurrection perspective of faith
which adds interpretation to the events in light of a fuller understanding of them from a later period of time. The Gospels are religious
propaganda designed to convert the reader. Let us be honest and admit
that the Gospels are biased in favor of Jesus. But the Gospels are not
useless in searching for the real Jesus of history just because they are
written by insiders. Their favorable attitude toward Jesus and
Christianity does require that they be studied carefully in light of what
they are and cross-examined for their integrity, but they need not be
rejected without a hearing. A good historian knows how to cross-examine evidence, separating what is reliable from what is unreliable.
One key point in cross-examining the story of the four Gospels is
their date. Skeptics tend to date the Gospels as late as possible, because
this allows more time for their theory that most of the story of Jesus
was invented by the early church. Conservatives tend to date the
Gospels as early as possible, because this places them within the
lifetime of eyewitnesses who would be on hand to verify their contents.
Actually we are not able to date any of the four Gospels precisely. It
is possible that one of them was written as early as the late 50s and
that one of them was written as late as the 90s. Within that range no
one can speak with any certainty, even though many scholars
pontificate and pretend to be certain. In my opinion it is likely that the
first Gospel, Mark, was written in the 60s. Matthew and Luke were
probably sometime within the next twenty years. John was likely last.
Even though honesty does not permit us to assign a specific date, the
news is good for those who want to believe in the traditional Christ of
faith. All of the Gospels are from the first century, as is the rest of the
New Testament. All of it is very close in time to the events which they
narrate and interpret. And even though the skeptics attempt to dismiss
the presence of any eyewitnesses among the writers of the New
Testament, that is not so easily done.20
There is more good news, though, which shrinks this time frame
considerably. The Gospels are based, in part, on earlier information,
either oral or written. Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that
others had "undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events
that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by
those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the
word" (Lk. 1:1-2). So while the skeptical critics carry on long and
loud about sources they think they have detected within the Gospels or
other New Testament documents, that is not bad news for the historical
Jesus. Most source criticism is theory. It is speculation built on top of
speculation. Much of it might be right, or almost all of it might be
wrong. But if we are concerned about the accuracy of the information
regarding Jesus in the Gospels, the presence of sources behind the
Gospels is good news. If Mark wrote his Gospel in the 60s and
Matthew and Luke sometime in the next decade or two after that, they
are removed by a mere thirty-five or so years from the death and
resurrection of Jesus. If they used sources of information which go
back another ten, twenty or more years, that is even closer to the time
of the event. There is less time available for any potential corruption
and distortion of the message to occur, and certainly not enough time
for a complete myth to evolve.
It is almost unanimously believed among New Testament scholars
today that Mark's Gospel was written first and that the Gospel of
Matthew and the Gospel of Luke used Mark as a source. There is a
significant portion of material which Matthew and Luke share in
common which is not found in Mark. This material is labeled "Q"
from the German word for "source." No one knows whether this
information was written down or whether it was merely passed along
by word of mouth in oral tradition. The similar wording suggests to
some that it was in written form, or possibly in several written forms.
Let us for the sake of argument date Matthew and Luke in the 70s.
They both may have been written a decade before or after, but let us
put them in the 70s which is not an extreme date in either direction. When did the so-called "Q" traditions originate? In the 60s? In the
50s? In the 40s? Or possibly as early as the 30s? Once again this puts
us extremely close to the time of the actual events. It is also a matter
of scholarly discussion as to whether or not Matthew and Luke had
other sources. Most conclude that they did. Once again this pushes the
origin of these traditions back closer to the time of their occurrence.
The writings of Paul, which are almost all dated in the 50s and 60s,
show evidence of earlier sources. While Paul's apostleship and his
encounter with the living Christ were the result of a direct revelation
from God, Paul conferred with eyewitnesses and received information
about Jesus from them. In about 55 A.D. in 1 Corinthians Paul writes
about the last supper, quoting the very words of Jesus (1 Cor. 11:23-26). This was done possibly ten years or more before any of the
Gospels were written and a mere twenty-five years after the event.
Furthermore, Paul reminded the Corinthian church: "For I handed on
to you as of first importance what I in turn had received" (1 Cor.
15:3). This takes us back to the 30s to the time of Paul's conversion,
only a few years after the resurrection of Jesus. Paul was in contact
with eyewitnesses and first generation Christians everywhere he went.
Thus it is apparent, except to the person who begins with a skeptical
attitude, that the stories and traditions about Jesus were known and
recorded a very short time after they occurred.
Let us draw an analogy. The distance of time from today in the year
2,000 to World War II is as great or greater than the distance in time
from the ministry of Jesus to the writing of most of the books of the
New Testament. And we have already noted, many of them are much
earlier and they are built on information which predates them, sometimes by decades. But working with a fifty-five to sixty year time span,
how many of you were involved in the war effort, either as a soldier
or a civilian? How many of you were old enough to listen to the radio
during the war or read the newspaper? How many of you have a parent
who fits into one of these first two categories? How many of you have
a grandparent who fits into one of the first two categories? Imagine
how difficult it would be to fictionalize a whole life story, a series of
events and a body of teaching, as if it all happened in the heart of
Europe in the 1940s. If I attempted to do that and pass it off as fact,
people all around could expose my deceit.
How much more so would that be true if I tried to do something
similar for events from the Vietnam war era. That takes us back thirty
years. Thirty years after Jesus died, a significant portion of the New
Testament was already written and sources for later use were already
developed, either in writing or in oral tradition. Let us push it back
even further. The initial telling and retelling of the story of Jesus and
the development of the oral tradition about him began immediately
after his resurrection. The gospel story had already taken definite form
by the time of Paul's conversion in the 33 A.D. So imagine me trying
to create some grand fiction about the Gulf War and passing it off as
history today. When the apostle Paul noted that there were over five
hundred witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, he added: "most of whom
are still alive" (1 Cor. 15:6). His point was obvious. If the story of the
resurrection were not true, there were close to five hundred people who
could have exposed it as a fraud.
Thus a very strong hypothetical case can be built for the accuracy
with which the early Christians handed down the story of Jesus, but
this is hypothetical. Bias on the part of the person investigating the
historicity of Jesus is very evident if we keep the discussion at this
level. Liberal skeptics tend to distrust the accuracy of the transmission
of the story of Jesus. The believer assumes that the story has been
accurately transmitted. Is there any way that we can get beyond pure
speculation about how well the story was transmitted between 30 A.D.
and the writing of the Gospels? Yes, there is. Again, it is almost
certain that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke used
Mark to produce their Gospels. If we compare parallel passages
between the three synoptic Gospels, we can see whether or not the
message was preserved accurately. Examine the following narrative
which is found in all four Gospels.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was
baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up
out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit
descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven,
"You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also
had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was
opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily
form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are
my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the
Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I
need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is
proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
Then he consented. And when Jesus had been
baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the
heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a
voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the
Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared,
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks
ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not
know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he
might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit
descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I
myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with
water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and
remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I
myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of
While there are variations in the telling of the story, the differences
are not significant. We know that in the telling and retelling of the
gospel story, different speakers and writers used
different words and ways to tell about Jesus. But we have no evidence
that the story of Jesus was changed significantly during the time period
from the life of Jesus until the writing of the New Testament
documents. If the story of Jesus was going to be transformed from that
of a peasant rabbi into that of the miracle working Lord, we would
expect to see significant development. Instead, what we find from the
latest to the absolute earliest tradition about Jesus is the same: Jesus
was believed to be the divine Son of God who was resurrected on the
third day. We do not find him not working miracles in the earlier
layers of the tradition and working miracles in the later traditions. We
do not find his body decaying in the tomb in the earlier layers of the
tradition and resurrected only in the later layers of the tradition. The
story of Jesus is the same in substance throughout.
This argument may be extended in some very powerful ways. For
example, not only is there evidence pointing toward the accuracy and
continuity in the transmission of the Jesus tradition, but also there is
no evidence for the free creation of words and deeds attributed to
Jesus. One of the simplest ways in which one can demonstrate this is
to study the major controversies which gripped the church throughout
the later half of the first century. As Blomberg explains:
Numerous Christian controversies that surfaced after Jesus'
ascension and threatened to tear the New Testament church apart
could have been conveniently solved if the first Christians had
simply read back into the Gospels solutions to those debates. But
this is precisely what never happens. Not once does Jesus
address many of the major topics that for the rest of the first
century loomed large in the minds of Christians--whether
believers needed to be circumcised, how to regulate speaking in
tongues, how to keep Jew and Gentile united in one body,
whether believers could divorce non-Christian spouses, what
roles were open to women in ministry, and so on.21
As Ben Witherington put it: "The evidence for Christian prophets speaking words that were later retrojected into narratives about the historical Jesus is nonexistent."22
If the writers of the Gospels were this careful, there is no logical
reason to think that anyone who went before them was not equally
careful. Not only did they want to be accurate in their transmission of
the story of Jesus, since it was sacred to them, but they also had the
ability to transmit it accurately. In the ancient Jewish world, and to a
slightly lesser extent in the Greco-Roman world, memorization was a
highly developed talent. Huge bodies of literature or tradition were
passed along in this way. If the early Christians acted in the ways
which were traditional for the first century, they would have passed
down the story of Jesus with great accuracy.23 As the New Testament scholar I. H. Marshall reminds us, the tradition of Jesus' deeds and
words was transmitted in a Jewish environment "where considerable
importance was attached to the accurate memorisation and transmission" of traditions.24
There are other ways in which we can cross-examine the Gospel
witnesses as to their reliability. One is the test of multiple attestation
or converging lines of evidence. Just because only one person reports
an event does not mean that event did not take place. But in testing the
probability of whether or not something happened, multiple attestation
is better. In the story of Jesus we have a multitude of witnesses. We
have the four Gospels. We have numerous other historical references
in the rest of the New Testament. We even have a small amount of
evidence from non-biblical sources, although it is quite minimal.
Multiple attestation points to the credibility of the Jesus story.25
Next, we have the test of embarrassment. If a story is told about
Jesus which made the early Christians uncomfortable, that story is
most probably true. Why would the early church make up some story
of Jesus which puzzled them or bothered them? We can know with
certainty beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus was baptized by John
the Baptist. Baptism was a penitent act for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus did not need to repent, nor did he have any sins of which he
needed to be forgiven. Furthermore, submitting to baptism by John
might give some people the wrong impression that John was superior
to Jesus. Because of these difficulties, it is as certain as it is possible
to be, within the limitations of historical knowledge, that Jesus was
baptized by John and that the early church did not invent this story.
The same thing is true of the crucifixion of Jesus. Crucifixion in the
ancient world was for slaves and the worst of criminals. Christianity
had a major public relations problem in preaching the gospel due to the
crucifixion of Jesus. It was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness
to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23).26 One further example would be the
statement of Jesus: "No one is good--except God alone" (Mk. 10:18;
Mt. 19:17; Lk. 18:19). Many Christians are uncomfortable with that statement. It almost sounds as if Jesus is denying that he is good in any
absolute sense. Many Christians have misinterpreted this passage to
mean that Jesus was trying to draw a confession out of this man by
pretending not to claim goodness. The embarrassment this passage has
caused the church is a strong indicator that the saying is genuine.
Another way to test the genuineness of the New Testament message
is to ask if it is the best explanation of the facts. How do we explain
the beginning of the church? How do we explain the existence of the
New Testament documents, including the four Gospels? How do we
explain the traditions about Jesus which predate the New Testament
documents? The skeptical approach to Jesus claims that the original,
simple story of a Jewish peasant was transformed, layer by layer, into
the story of the divine Son of God. But the evolution of this story
exists only in the minds of the radical revisionists. The belief that Jesus
was the divine Son of God did not appear in 60 A.D. in Asia Minor,
or in 50 A.D. in the writings of Paul, or in 40 A.D. in Antioch. The
belief in the Messiahship of Jesus can be traced back to within a few
months of when the resurrection is supposed to have occurred.
The innovators who proclaimed this story of a divine being born in
Bethlehem, crucified at Calvary and resurrected are not the second and
third generations of Christians. The innovator was not even the apostle
Paul. "The innovators can be traced back to the earliest days of the
Christian church."27 The innovation of this gospel story occurred in the
early 30s of the first century. Later embellishment and fictionalizing
by the second and third generation of Christians simply cannot explain
the origin of the story of Jesus, the emergence of the church or the
writing of the New Testament documents. Some other cause must be
found to explain where all these traditions about Jesus came from.
Let us compare it to the big bang theory of the universe. The
universe exists. How did it come into existence in its present form?
One theory is the big bang theory. That theory does not explain where
matter came from, but it is one hypothesis which does explain some of
the features of the universe which we observe today. Similarly, the
church came into existence in the early 30s of the first century.
Traditions about Jesus originated at the same time. In the next seventy
years the whole of the New Testament was written. How do we
account for all of these? The skeptical view that all of these can be accounted for by pious embellishment and fictionalizing of the gospel
story by the early church is not an adequate explanation. I submit to
you that the best explanation, the most adequate cause, is the
resurrection of Jesus Christ.28
There was a real person, Jesus, who was the founder of this new
religious movement, and there was a significant founding experience,
a big bang, which set it in motion, namely, the resurrection of Jesus
Christ. We cannot prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ through
historical analysis, but we can present it as the best explanation of the
data and thus the most probable scenario of what really happened.29 As
Johnson illustrated with an analogy to the Holocaust:
Anyone becoming aware of the drastically reduced number of
Jews in Europe in 1945 compared with 1932 could logically
posit a cause sufficient to account for the effect. Such reasoning
would not necessarily lead to the specific description of the
Holocaust. But it would necessarily lead to some force
sufficiently great to accomplish so awesome an effect. Theories
of increased tourism would not do.30
What can be known historically about Jesus can be placed on a
continuum from what certainly happened to what certainly did not
happen. We know things in ancient history to varying degrees of
probability. For ancient history very few things can be placed in the
extreme categories. Most things are placed somewhere in between, and
we use terms such as probably, likely, maybe or could have. Recognizing that the boundary line between various categories is arbitrarily
chosen and that scholars will disagree on what belongs in each
category, let me outline five categories in which we can place the
material about Jesus from the four Gospels and from the rest of the
Through cautious historical analysis the careful
student can reconstruct the real Jesus of history. First,
one can compile those things that can be known
about Jesus with some certainty by means of
historical study. At this point the picture will be
incomplete. It will only be very minimal, because that
is the limited nature of historical knowledge for
ancient history. It might be very much like the picture
to the right.
- What beyond a reasonable doubt did happen
- actually lived as a Jew in Palestine
- proclaimed the kingdom of God
- taught in parables
- died by crucifixion
- prayed using "Abba"
- What probably happened
- the resurrection of Christ
- called and trained disciples
- told parable of the prodigal son
- cleansed the temple
- the last supper
- Wht could have happened
- changed water into wine
- worshipped by wise men
- born of a virgin
- What proably did not happen
- nothing from the Gospels in this category
- What beyond a resonable doubt did not happen
- nothing from the Gospels in this category
Then one can add to these facts other things
which Jesus probably did or probably said, as long as
they are consistent with those things which can be
known with much certainty. The material in this category does not increase in probability just because it is
consistent with the more certain category, but it must
pass the test of coherence to be included here. At this
point the picture of Jesus will begin to fill in with
much more detail, and it will take on definite shape.
Finally, one can add those things which could have happened, as
long as they are consistent with what is known with certainty about
Jesus and that which is probable. Then, one can
begin to interpret the meaning and the significance of Jesus' sayings
and actions, which takes one into a world totally
beyond the reach of history. It is a world of
spiritual values such as divine forgiveness and
salvation. It is a world of spiritual existence which
speaks of heaven and God. At that point one
should have a more complete portrait of the whole
personality of Jesus which is internally consistent
In all humility as a finite being trying to grasp an invisible and infinite
God, at this point may I suggest that the resulting portrait of the real
Jesus of history has become identical with the Christ of the four
Gospels and the rest of the New Testament documents.Back to List of Longer Articles
The real Jesus of history is consistent with the glorified Christ of
Christian faith, because he is one and the same. The skeptical attempt
to separate the real Jesus of history from the Christ of faith is a futile
attempt to separate the inseparable. The Christ of Christian faith is
simply the real Jesus of history plus a developed understanding and
interpretation of who he was and is. For example, the real Jesus of
history was "born of a woman, born under the law" (Gal. 4:4). The
Christ of faith is the Word who was "with God" and "was God" and
"became flesh" (Jn. 1:1, 14; 1 Tim. 3:16). The real Jesus of history
was a teacher who shed light on many subjects. The Christ of faith is
"the light of the world" (Jn. 8:12; 9:5; 12:46), "the light of all people"
(Jn. 1:4), and "the true light" (Jn. 1:9). The real Jesus of history was
a Jew, a descendant of the royal line of David. The Christ of faith is
the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of kings. The real Jesus of
history died by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. The Christ of faith
"died for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3). The real Jesus of history was
resuscitated after his death. The Christ of faith was "raised for our
justification" (Rom. 4:25), "designated Son of God in power...by his
resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4).
We began with a historical study. We have concluded at the point
of faith. "Faith starts from knowledge, even it if reaches beyond it,
and its character as faith is not destroyed by its association with
knowledge...It appears, then, that we cannot do without the historical
Jesus if we are to believe in the Christ of faith."31 Crossan, one of the
members of the Jesus Seminar, makes an important point: "There can
be history without faith."32 There were some who saw Jesus, heard him
teach and even witnessed him perform miracles who did not believe in
him. So yes, there can be history without faith, then and now.
But the more important question for us is the opposite one, which
Crossan also asks: "Can there be faith without history?" Again, I
would answer in the affirmative. Even if Jesus did not teach all of
those things we think he taught, even if he did not perform all of those
miracles recounted in the Gospels, and even if he was not raised from
the dead, people could still believe in him. But the problem is that such
a faith is empty. It is a false faith. It is like stepping on a lily pad as
if it will support your weight and enable you to walk across a pond.
Sploosh! As Paul said: "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain....If Christ has
not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1
Cor. 15:14, 17).
We need a rational, historical basis for our faith, so that it will not
become a subjective, individual feeling which is not guided by any
objective criterion. As N. T. Wright explained: "History, then,
prevents faith becoming fantasy. Faith prevents history becoming mere
antiquarianism."33 Any absolute confirmation or denial of who Jesus
was and is lies beyond the grasp of pure, historical analysis. But
without giving up our powers of critical reason, without giving in to
naivety or incredulity even for a moment, as believers we have good
reason to say with the apostle Paul: "But in fact Christ has been raised
from the dead" (1 Cor. 15:20).
Earlier it was noted that when E. V. Rieu, a Classical scholar,
began a translation of the Gospels, his son commented: "It will be very
interesting to see what Father makes of the Gospels." That was only
part of the quotation of the son of Rieu. He went on to say: "It will be
still more interesting to see what the Gospels make of Father."34 After
he had translated the Gospels into English, Rieu wrote:
Of what I have learnt from these documents in the course of my
long task, I will say nothing now. Only this, that they bear the
seal of the Son of Man and God, they are the Magna Charta of
the human spirit.35
Is it the same with you? Can you confess along with the apostle Peter:
"You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Mt. 16:16)?
1I. Howard Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977) 11, 25n.
2Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
3Cited by Johnson, The Real Jesus, 7.
4Leif Vaage, Atlanta Constitution, 30 Sept. 1989, Ibid., 15.
6Howard Clark Kee, Ibid., 18.
7Richard Hays, Ibid., 26.
8Cited by Marshall, I believe, 12.
10Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, cited by Johnson,
The Real Jesus, 38. For a brief review of the Jesus various critics
"find" in their "historical" research, e.g. Jesus the sage, Jesus the
religious genius, and Jesus the social revolutionary, see Scot McKnight,
"Who is Jesus? An Introduction to Jesus Studies," in Michael J. Wilkins
and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, 1995) pp. 55-62.
11Cited in Marshall, I believe, 45.
13Cited in Craig L. Blomberg, "Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?"
in Jesus Under Fire, 21.
14Marshall, I believe, 112.
16"Sea of reeds" is a literal translation of the Hebrew (Ex. 10:19).
We do not know exactly where Moses and the children of Israel crossed
over. There were marshy, shallow lakes north of the Red Sea in ancient
times which were more extensive than those present today. If they
crossed through them, it is not a matter of two inches of water, but of
several feet of water plus a tidal surge from the strong wind. See
various Bible dictionaries and commentaries.
17Johnson, Real Jesus, 63.
19See Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Jesus Outside the New Testament: What
Is the Evidence?" in Jesus Under Fire, 207-29.
20In this brief study I make no argument pro or con on apostolic and,
therefore, eyewitness authorship of Matthew and John, or even for the eyewitness of the apostle Peter being behind the gospel of Mark. The
reliability of the four Gospels can be established quite well even without
these arguments. My non-use of eyewitness arguments is only due to
time and space limitations. The conservative case for eyewitness
authorship of some New Testament documents and eyewitness sources
for others is a strong one.
21Blomberg, "Where Do We Start?" in Jesus Under Fire, 32.
22Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995) 200.
23See Blomberg, in Jesus Under Fire, 32-34; idem, The Historical
Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987).
24Marshall, I believe, 196.
25As an example Marshall points to a saying of Jesus found in Mark
(Mk. 8:35; Mt. 16:25; Lk. 9:24), Q (Mt. 10:39; Lk. 17:33) and John
(Jn. 12:25). Also, see Darrell L. Bock, "The Word of Jesus in the
Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" in Jesus Under Fire, 92-93.
26See Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
27Marshall, I believe, 70. Also see Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).
28The number of excellent studies defending the validity and
historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is too large to even
attempt to list. One brief one in the literature already noted is William
Lane Craig, "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?" in Jesus Under Fire, 141-76.
29Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New
Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1958) 9-15.
30Johnson, Real Jesus, 139.
31Marshall, I believe, 82, 84.
32John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Werner H.
Kelber, The Jesus Controversy: Perspectives in Conflict (Harrisburg,
PA: Trinity Press International, 1999) 1.
33Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two
Visions. HarperSanFrancisco, 1999) 26.
34Cited in Marshall, I believe, 45.
Books by chief members of the Jesus Seminar, the group which
voted on which words of Jesus are authentic and which are not. These
works are skeptical, liberal, historical reconstruction. They deny
virtually everything traditionally believed about Jesus of Nazareth. The
Jesus Seminar does not represent the most scholarly presentation of
skeptical historical reconstruction, but it does represent the view most
commonly presented in the media in the last decade.
Borg, Marcus J. Jesus: A New Vision. HarperSanFrancisco, 1987.
____________. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus
& the Heart of Contemporary Faith. HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus A Revolutionary Biography. Harper
____________. The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the
Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco,
____________. The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images.
Funk, Robert W. Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium.
____________, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels:
The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company, 1993. [This work is the summary of the
research of the Jesus Seminar. The words attributed to Jesus in the
four Gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas, a mid-second century or
later Coptic Gospel, possibly Gnostic, are color coded for their
authenticity in the opinion of the Jesus Seminar.]
Books which present skeptical and traditional views of Jesus in a
debate/discussion format. Crossan and Borg represent the Jesus
Seminar. Johnson and Wright represent the traditional view of Jesus (on
the whole but not at all points, e.g. the virgin birth).
Crossan, John Dominic, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Werner H. Kelber.
The Jesus Controversy: Perspectives in Conflict. Harrisburg, PA:
Trinity Press International, 1999.
Borg, Marcus J., and N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.
Responses by moderate or conservative scholars to the Jesus Seminar
and other recent, skeptical historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus.
The Original Jesus by Wright and Strobel's The Case for Christ are
written more on a layman's level than the other works. Jesus: The New
Way is a six hour video curriculum.
Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987.
George, Denise and Tom Wright. Jesus: The New Way. Worchester, PA:
Church History Institute, 1998.
Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life
of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the
Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. Harper
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Wilkins, Michael J., and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire. Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.
Witherington, Ben, III. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress
____________. Who was Jesus? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.
Wright, Tom. The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a
Revolutionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
General works which to one degree or another are relevant to the
question of the historicity of Jesus.
Anderson, Charles C. Critical Quests of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI:
Baird, William. The Quest of the Christ of Faith. Waco, TX: Word
Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? 5th
edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960.
Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to
the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.
Dunn, James D. G. Christology in the Making. 2d edition. Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980, 1989.
Erickson, Millard J. The Word Became Flesh. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker
Book House, 1991.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 3d edition. Downers
Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970.
Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.
Hoover, Arlie J. Dear Agnos: A Defense of Christianity. Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker Book House, 1976.
Marshall, I. Howard. I Believe in the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids,
MI: Eerdmans, 1977.
____________. Luke: Historian and Theologian. Grand Rapids, MI:
____________. The Origins of New Testament Christology. 2d edition.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976, 1990.
Ramm, Bernard. An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic & Historic.
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.
____________. Protestant Christian Evidences. Chicago: Moody Press, 1953.
Richardson, Alan. An Introduction to the Theology of the New
Testament. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
Skarsaune, Oskar. Incarnation: Myth or Fact? Translated by Trygve R. Skarsten. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.
____________. Christian Apologetics. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947.
Wells, David F. The Person of Christ: A Biblical and Historical Analysis
of the Incarnation. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984.
A Word of Appreciation
A word of gratitude goes to the elders and members of University
City Church of Christ, Gainesville, Florida, where this lesson was
preached on October 8, 2000, for their support and encouragement.
Appreciation also goes to Carline Hines, a member of the youth group,
for the drawing of Jesus and Marilyn Little, my secretary, for help in
preparing the manuscript.
(c) Copyright 2000
All Rights Reserved
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