Meet the Real Jesus

tell the truth

The ground I covered in this brief series does not come near to addressing all issues associated with the historical Jesus topic. My scope was limited to the very popular and straightforward claim that prior to the 4th century, the four Gospels were not considered authoritative. Of course, the consequence of such is that Jesus wasn’t who we all have been lead to believe he was. And if he was not who he claims, then it proves the Christian religion is false. Therefore, so it goes, let your conscience be at ease for you will not face him in judgment. There is no threat of Hell. However, if he is who he says he is, then the opposite is true. That is my concern for my readers.

My study of and exposure to the historic Jesus reconstructionism has shown me that like the inquisitive child there will always be another question asked. In rapid fire, the next question is posed before the previous one was fully answered. The curious child that I imagine is an information junkie, a sponge, her young synapses firing at peak efficiency and her memory cells absorbing knowledge. Those with the Da Vinci Code Perspective don’t strike me that way. It smacks of the skeptic. The skeptic asks questions not to gain knowledge but as a tactician with a destructive goal in mind. I write that not to be provocative but to appeal to what I think is an obstacle to truth. The skeptic has made up his mind, not because of, but in spite of the evidence.

I see this sort of thing often in my workplace. My job is somewhat like the old Dragnet TV dragnetshow where Sergeant Friday, in his characteristically stoic monotone manner, reminds his informants to give him “Just the facts ma’am.” My day-job is to find failures in micro-electronic circuits. The results of my investigation can have relatively severe consequences. My findings may cause a production line to shut down for long periods, which costs the company a lot of money. Or, they could expose a design weakness and harm the company’s technical reputation. The bottom line is that some problem exists and it will eventually implicate one department or another, or even the customer. The temptation for upper management to spin the results in order to “point the finger” at the most opportune group rather than the true source can be strong. One way that plays out is for conclusions to be made before I have even begun the investigation. Management may implement a change to a product or process based on speculations made in a meeting room with no input, no facts, from the investigation! Sadly, such reactions can cause more damage than they try to avoid.

The best approach is always to let the evidence lead you to the conclusions, to the true point of failure. With truth on your side, then you can have confidence of implementing a legitimate fix to the real problem. In the end, everyone benefits. The product gets better, the company’s reputation is spared, relationships with the customer improves, on and on. It sounds simple, but when the consequences are high and emotions get involved, the right process can be short-circuited.

Perhaps the historic Jesus debate is like that. The skeptic is faced with too great a consequence and has made up her mind to present a solution to a fictitious problem, irrespective of the evidence. Nag Hammadi is an archeological treasure for sure. It reveals a great deal of insight into second century thought and culture. But for modern man to implement a change, to re-write the events of two thousand years ago makes no historical or logical sense—when we know the first documents of eyewitness testimony were written between thirty and sixty years removed from the events and extant copies have proven to be an extremely reliable, continual historical legacy of those testimonies.

Let me recommend to my readers some of the books I read in my Professional Doctoral studies that were the foundation for this blog series:

eyewitnessesJesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Bauckham is a Cambridge scholar and Professor Emeritus at St. Andrews University in Scotland. His book explains, largely from the writings of Papias, that the four Gospels were written in a manner consistent with 1st century culture of eyewitness testimony. In the world of historiography (“doing history”), having reliable early manuscripts of eyewitness testimony is the “Holy Grail.”

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, by Michael Licona. Licona’s liconawork exposes the point I made in the first blog post that historians do not have an established quality control method for documenting history. Because of that void, professional historians went through a phase akin to postmodernism—you cannot know anything for sure. But the profession is returning to its senses and affirming that yes, there are ways to discern the past with significant confidence after all. Perhaps the search-for-the-historical-Jesus movement was caught up in that milieu. Licona’s work provides professional historians with the historiographical methodology that has been lacking. I think this a key book, but beware…it is loooong and technical!

missing gospels bockThe Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities. By Darrell Bock. Dr. Bock really is the go-to guy when it comes to all things Nag Hammadi. Ever since The Da Vinci Code, Dr. Bock has been called upon to respond to these popular and erroneous publications that storm popular culture. Every few years another reconstructionist book about “the real Jesus” gets published because of a newly-found “lost Gospel” that supposedly destroys the biblical account. If you are persuaded by these things, please read Dr. Bock’s books.

how we got bible_How We Got the Bible, by Timothy Paul Jones. I’ve mentioned this one throughout the blog. I consider it a “one-stop-shop” of solid, accessible facts about the authenticity, reliability, and transmission of the Bible. The way I put it in a class assignment (yes, I’m quoting myself): “[Dr. Jones’s book] is a practical distillation of the massive pile of scholarship written on the subjects of biblical canonicity and textual criticism…a compendium of the key dates, persons, facts, and issues…covering patristics to statistics.”

I began this blog series stating that by the end we will be able to ask “The real Jesus to please stand up.” The historical and circumstantial evidence clearly show that the traditional, Christian history concerning the person and work of Jesus was accepted in the 1st century, not the 4th. The literature found in Nag Hammadi does not warrant a re-write of Christian history, but rather affirms it.

Indeed, the personal stakes are high. While I have tried to present a reasonable defense for the traditional Jesus, the issue transcends merely winning or losing an argument. The plea of the Christian faith, from the self-sacrificed and resurrected Jesus, that his followers have continued through the ages, is “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

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Were the Gospel authors aware of their own authority?

four gospels

In the previous blog post I pointed out the claim that the pre-4th century church did not recognize the authority of the four Gospels is self-refuting when you consider exactly who the early church was. Their very existence, identification, and organization composed a robust quality control system of the Gospel narrative, consistent with the four Gospel accounts of their origin. In contrast, the Nag Hammadi documents, upon which alternative histories are imagined, represent no identifiable group of people. Therefore, to claim that the early church did not recognize the four Gospels as authoritative, and that the “lost Gospels” were true, is self-defeating. The only authoritative body in existence to make such determination was the very one who produced the four Gospels. If the lost writings were accurate, there would be no Christian church to ask this question of. So again, we see that revisionist history is make-believe.

Gnosticism in the 1st century was not a people, recognizing authoritative documents; rather, it was an amorphous mixture of Greek philosophy and sketchy Christian theology with differing schools of thought that evolved with scarcely recognizable cohesion well into the 2nd century.  In the decades immediately following Jesus, there was no formal Gnostic church with a competitively viable alternative historical record. In the 1st century, the only Christian assemblies were those of apostolic origin.  These churches were committed to what we know as the traditional, historic message of Jesus.

NagHamadi-mapFurthermore, the early church openly opposed those incipient false teachings, and in some cases, the very documents unearthed in Nag Hammadi. In this post, I will take a look at another significant, related aspect of the Da Vinci Code Perspective claim of the church’s recognition of the Gospels’ authority. Borrowing from Michael Kruger’s book, The Question of Canon, he asks in chapter four, “Were the New Testament authors unaware of their own authority?” And in chapter five, “Were the New Testament books first regarded as scripture at the end of the second century?” I think these are great questions to pursue that help us understand why I champion the traditional church record and not the re-constructed historical record. If the Gospel authors understood they were writing authoritatively in the context of a close-knit, organized, message-driven group—which they were—then the claim that the four Gospels were not authoritative until the 4th century is obliterated. Kruger’s book is rather technical, it has to be to pass muster, but I’ll try to hit the highlights. After all, claims have to be supported.

Chapter four argues along similar lines of my previous post, the authority structure of the church. The twelve apostles (Judas Iscariot replaced by Matthias) plus the one “untimely born,” Paul, were the highest office bearers in the first Christian church. These were the men hand-picked by Jesus. When determining who would replace Judas Iscariot, Peter set fort the criteria “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” Acts 1:21-22.  With the risen Christ ascended, His select men were given authority, demonstrated in the signs and wonders (miracles) that mimicked Jesus’s. Apostolic authority was so highly valued that the copy-cat Gospels, as well as later fringe churches, manufactured apostolic connections to gain a hearing.

Paul’s epistles provide the most straightforward expression of the significance of apostolic authority. As the 12th hand-picked apostle, some two years after Jesus’s resurrection, his authority was the most questioned. Therefore, he defends his credentials in several places. The point here is that the church did not blindly follow anyone or any teaching, apostolic authority was required. Was that authority recognizable within the four Gospels?  is Kruger’s topic. He states, “Our thesis is a simple one: New Testament authors, generally speaking, demonstrate awareness that their writings passed down authentic apostolic tradition and therefore bore supreme authority in the life of the church” (pg. 121). New Testament scholarship has concluded that the Gospel of Mark is a record of the witness of Peter. The Gospel is replete with evidence for this. Kruger adds, “Aside from the fact that Mark’s connection to Peter was well known among the early church fathers and it is attested by other parts of the New Testament.” (pg. 133-34).

Likewise, the historical attestation and internal evidence of the Gospel of John links it to apostolic authority. Whether you hold to its self-proclaimed authorship (John) as the apostle or the later “elder” John, the connection between John 15:27 and 21:24 is clear: In 15:27 Jesus prophesied, “You will also bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning” and in 21:24, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things.” (Kruger pg. 137). Now, let’s briefly consider each of the four Gospels.

Luke’s expressed purpose for writing was to pass along the apostolic, authoritative traditions: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”

The evidence in Matthew is less straightforward but still present. Stylistically, it follows Luke in how it mimics Old Testament scripture. These patterns are deliberate and communicate a connection of continued, divine truth. You will have to read the book to get the nitty-gritty details.

irenaeus

Kruger’s chapter 5 takes the next step from the Bible’s self-attestation of apostolic authority to the recognition of such by the 2nd and 3rd century church fathers. As Kruger notes negatively, “If these books [New Testament] were not written to be Scripture, then we should not expect to see them used as Scripture until a much later time in the life of the church.” (pg. 156.) The historical evidence is positive. We do see the next generations using them as Scripture (as divinely authoritative). Kruger points out that current New Testament scholarship places the date of the church’s acceptance of the books as Scripture in the end of the second century. That is largely based on the writing of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. “Most notable is his affirmation that the four Gospels were so certain that their existence is entrenched in the very structure of creation….”

I will leave the support for my argument there. Considering that even non-Christian scholars recognize the church’s use of the Gospels in the 2nd century,  the Da Vinci Code Perspective of a 4th century date is dealt another death-blow.

My final, upcoming, post not only summarizes and provides some helpful resources for further study, but it also takes on a reflective nature and asks the skeptic to consider his skepticism in light of these very clear historical facts.

Who exactly was “the early church?”

 

As I thought through the claim that the pre-4th century church did not regard the four New Testament Gospels as authoritative, it occurred to me to ask, “Have you considered exactly who these ancient people are?” This is a ginormous question for skeptics claiming we must re-write the history books about the church’s own authoritative documents. It is most certainly one of several elephants in the room.

The Da Vinci Code Perspective (see blog post 1 and blog post 2) pits the Nag Hammadi documents, the Gnostic Gospels, against the four New Testament Gospels as the proper source behind the “real” Jesus of Nazareth. Like Gnosticism itself, it asserts special, almost mystical insight into supposedly murky and mysterious things that are otherwise unknowable. However, the reality is that we can lay the historical data out in the open, side-by-side with the four Gospels, and compare them with a great deal of clarity. No special glasses are needed.

urrim and thumin

Back to the elephant…WHO supposedly did not recognize the four Gospels as authoritative? The answer of course is the Christian church. The Da Vinci Code Perspective overlooks the fact that the 1st century church owes its very existence to the historical events surrounding the traditional Gospel message—Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, who lived and died and was resurrected to atone for sin. It was their impetus. It was their very identity. The 1st century church and its message of the Good News is rooted in the historical narrative. The four Gospels and Acts (Luke Volume 2) chronicle the history. If the lost Gospels were accurate and the Jesus of the revised history were true, there would be no Christian church in the 4th century or the 21st century to even look back upon the 1st. It would be utterly different. Such a Jesus and such a church is a phantom. Let’s follow the historical bread crumbs back to the beginning of the trail.

 eyewitnesses

First, there was a pre-4th century church who witnessed the events, proclaimed them, and wrote prolifically about Jesus and the Christian faith. So, we do not have to wonder and speculate about what these people believed about Jesus. The revisionists justify their need to re-construct Jesus by introducing doubt about the gap between the events of Jesus’s life and when the Gospels were penned. Certainly, there was a gap in time, but it is not cloaked in mystery. This is the fog-machine needed to peddle their special anti-fog glasses. Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony, makes a very strong case that “The Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship.” (pg. 6). The take-away here is, evidence shows the early church was comprised of eyewitnesses to the events; and the four Gospels, not the lost Gospels, are reliable hard copies of their orally transmitted testimonies.

The strength of the traditional history is that it is traceable to the eyewitnesses, opposed to Nag Hammadi which is traceable to a detached group of people some one to three hundred years removed.  Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, points out, “It is often proper for those Christians who side with orthodoxy to say that the Gnostics got things wrong when referring to the teachings of the historical Jesus and his disciples. The Gnostic literature is later than the New Testament literature, usually quite a bit later. Moreover, that the Gnostic literature contains authentic apostolic tradition is dubious, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas. But there is even uncertainty regarding Thomas.” (pg. 37).

quality-control

Second, concerning who the early church was, their name is important. We could perhaps call them “the meet-ers.” We use the term “church” with no obvious significance for us today. It is an anglicized, Germanic transliteration of the Greek word meaning “of the Lord.” It relates more to the place of worship than the people who are worshipping. As in our day, we see a building with a steeple and think “church.”

However, the early Christians did not have such structures. They met in private homes. The key is, they met. Their very name, “ekklesia,” in Greek, was an ordinary word for any assembly. They were known for what was most obvious about them…they gathered together often and regularly. Why is that important to this discussion? From the very beginning, they were a distinguishable, identifiable group of people with clearly recognized leadership. Jesus had twelve men in his inner circle. Eleven of them went on to lead this assembly of converts (most of whom were eyewitnesses, even participants in Jesus’s crucifixion).  Luke, the historian, quotes from Peter’s first sermon, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Luke explains, “when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart.” (Acts 2:36-37). After that sermon, the membership exploded. “But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4). Such growth required more leadership. The church appointed deacons (servant-leaders) to handle the practical needs of the group while the apostles were responsible for teaching and preaching. As the church expanded and moved beyond Jerusalem, local pastors, also called elders and bishops, were appointed to oversee the new “ekklesias” (congregations.)

Let us try to grasp the significance of these things. Christianity emerged onto the world stage with a message of faith around the historical events of Jesus of Nazareth. The message, the Gospel, was everything. It was their identity. It was the reason for which they gathered. It was the reason for which Jews and non-Jews abandoned their families, their way of life, overnight, and joined the church at great personal expense—even martyrdom. Built into the psyche of the assembly was preserving that message. The early church had an extraordinarily robust quality control system in place. As Timothy Paul Jones notes: “Early Christians rejected these [other] writings because they were looking for trustworthy testimony about Jesus, and that’s not what they found when the [sic] read the “lost Scriptures.” (pg. 88).

By contrast, the Gnostics had no structure or identifiable group. There was no creed, no gnosticbody of doctrine, and no cohesive leadership. Gnosticism was a philosophy, not a church, in an incipient form during and after the time of Christ. Nag Hammadi shows that a hundred or so years later it had gained some consistency of topics with disconnected leader like Carpocrates, Saturninus, Basilides, and Valentinus (See the Missing Gospels, by Darrel Bock, pg. 10).

Therefore, when the claim is made that the four New Testament Gospels were not authoritative among the early church, we must point out the elephants in the room. The church was vitally linked to the message, the events, and the people of the Gospels. The church produced them. There was no alternative, authoritative body or documents. The Da Vinci Code Perspective is self-refuting.

In the next post, I’ll discuss if the Gospel writers were even aware that they were writing scripture!

 

Jesus#2, “Where did you come from?”

time mag jesus

Before asking our “To Tell the Truth” contestants some probing questions, I feel the need to explain something. The subject of this brief blog series requires me to take an informational, even corrective approach than I would prefer. If you knew me personally, you would know that I have a dry, witty sense of humor and that I really enjoy making people laugh with clever puns and jokes rather than confronting them over disagreements. Like most people, I am amused by and enjoy reading blogs about someone’s adventures trekking across the globe, complete with amazing photographs of places I will never see for myself. I am entertained by creative people who are able to notice and then transform a piece of garage-sale junk into a stunningly stylish bit of décor.  But that is not my task here. Instead, I am writing about serious matters—things associated with hope in this life and for life after death. These topics are not fodder solely for philosophers and theologians; they are the things that motivate us in our daily lives. I maintain that faith undergirds all we do, for the irreligious and the religious. We all have faith. Faith either trusts that Jesus is nothing or that he is everything. My blog attempts to direct your thoughts to a critical point of intersection between the spiritual and the physical worlds by looking at the historical claims of Christianity. When we deal with the person of Jesus and the historical record about him, we are confronted with a cardinal claim of Christianity: God came to Earth.

When it comes to Jesus, I plead with you to not give in to unfounded conspiracy theories or fanciful imaginations of his life, but rather pursue the facts. I find it ironic that many people in our scientific day seem inclined, even pre-disposed, to accept a revised account of Jesus when the original accounts are so solid. These are people, perhaps yourself, who otherwise rally around the flag of Science, resolute to consider only objective data and draw conclusions on the facts alone, yet they jettison the historical information about Jesus. Have you researched the data for yourself? Have you assumed the unreliability of the Bible and the historical record of the church or have you researched it? Are you really as scientific as you claim? Let’s now do a bit of cross-examination to separate the impostors from the genuine.

In the first blog, I named names. I pointed to two examples of revised history about Jesus. The authors’ perspectives were largely speculative, putting forth a theory and not a biography. They disavow traditional history and the documents from which it is founded, in favor of alternative documents with scant information. With tinted glasses donned, they anachronistically import their ideas into the historical record, seeing what is not there.

da vinci code

I’ve coined the phrase The Da Vinci Code Perspective, for my Jesus #2 candidate. It is short-hand for the popular notion that, The topic can be further narrowed to whether or not the four Gospels were recognized as accurate biographies of Jesus prior to the fourth century. Ironically, this perspective also claims to correct revised history. So, my first question to this Jesus #2 theory is, “Can you show me your ID?” or “What documents stand behind your story?”

nag hammadi

If the answer is, “The lost Gospels of Nag Hammadi,” we have our impostor. That sounds very mysterious and enlightening. Very Indiana jones-like. Revisionist theories have emerged due to an archaeological discovery of ancient documents in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Prior to that discovery, Bible skeptics took an altogether different approach. They questioned the traditionally-held authorship of many of the Bible’s individual books. German scholars based their theories on a book’s internal grammatical, stylistic, and thematic differences. The scholars postulated that Isaiah, for one example, was authored by several people over a long time. Their approach is known as “form criticism” and it has all but gone the way of the dodo in modern scholarship. It proved to be the hunch de jour.

My point to you is that attacks against the traditional historicity of the Bible is nothing new. The reason this blog is about the historical Jesus and not form criticism is because the winds of skepticism changed and now blow toward Nag Hammadi. Any suspicion leading you to question who the “real Jesus” is did not originate with you, but came filtered down from the academies. What do you know about these lost Gospels? For starters, not only is their content severely lacking supportable historical content, their authorship and connections to the events are dubious. Referring to the New Testament Gospels, Dr. Darrel Bock points out, “These [traditional materials] have value because of when they were written, and because of the persons who did the writing and their relationships to Jesus or those around Him. In historical work, sources rule.” (The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities pg. 83.) The opposite applies to the Gnostic, or lost Gospels. They have no value [as biographical documents] because of when they were written, and because of the persons who did the writing and the lack of relationship to Jesus or those around Him. They are relatively late, in a time notorious for false appeals to apostolic authority.

serapionThe late 2nd to early 3rd century church not only knew about these documents, they were battling against them in real-time. The Nag Hammadi documents actually validate the pre 4th century traditional record rather than displace it. Archaeologists did not unearth ancient documents that cause us to correct history; they resurrected the very documents of the false teachers about whom the church was warned to avoid! A compelling example comes from the eighth bishop of Antioch, Serapion, regarding the so-called Gospel of Peter. (The church at Antioch goes back to the first Christians.) Serapion wrote: “For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the rest of the apostles as Christ Himself. But those writings which are falsely inscribed with their name, we as experienced persons reject, knowing that no such writings have been handed down to us. I supposed that all were in accord with the orthodox faith; and, although I had not read through the Gospel inscribed with the name of Peter which was brought forward by them…But, now that I have learnt from what has been told me that their mind was secretly cherishing some heresy, I will make all haste to come to you again….” See How We Got the Bible, by Timothy Paul Jones, pp. 62-63).

Whether you take the side of the New Testament Gospels or the Gnostic Gospels, what cannot be disputed is that the pre-4th century church did recognize the four New Testament Gospels as authoritative. Nag Hammadi may be news to us, but we are a bit late on the scene of history.

I have another question for Jesus #2, a real elephant in the room. But, it will have to wait for blog post #3.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up

tell the truth

 

In the 1950’s the popular television game show “To Tell the Truth” entertained audiences by having panelists cross-examine three persons sitting before them in order to determine which was the real, semi-famous though unrecognizable person, they all claimed to be. The two impostors tried to fool the panelists by lying, leaving only the genuine to tell the truth. The show concluded by revealing the true person with the famous phrase, “Will the real [person’s name] please stand up!” With so many new theories about the “historical Jesus” presented to us nowadays, can we determine who the real Jesus is?

time mag jesus

Jesus was only a man. Obviously, there was something special about him, or there at least came to be something special about him, for him to garner such a following AND to have the years of human history calendared according to his birthday. But, he was likely nothing more than an ancient peasant, a political zealot, or a radical rabbi who lived an otherwise ordinary life, complete with a wife and kids. His noble acts and inspiring, anti-establishment words became legendary—think King Arthur or Robin Hood. Because Jesus lived during the time of Greek and Roman mythology, his legend became the stuff of gods. Think about it…the New Testament Gospels tell us he had a human mother and a divine father, walked on water, calmed a raging sea, dialogued with Satan, and cast out demons. And to top it off, just when his followers thought their movement was over, lo and behold Jesus came back from the dead!

 

Deification and Jesus-worship emerged over time. It took about three hundred years for the veneration to become official, public policy. In the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea gave Christians political power, social status, and the doctrinal framework necessary to build an organized religion for the masses. Oh yeah, did I mention they now had MONEY, and LOTS of it? Constantine’s religious legacy remains with us today. It remains somewhat like the Colosseum in Rome, a behemoth harkening back to a grand old past, but of no practical use in our modern world. Prior to the emperor and the ecclesiastical power-councils, the canonized Gospels were simply four legends among many: The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene to name a few. After all, we know that history gets written by the winners. Back then, the winner was the church. Once in power, the church dictated what documents were “God’s word” and declared the four Gospels were not legend, but truth, and promptly canonized them—conveniently disposing of all the other stories.

Therefore, to determine who the real Jesus is and what really happened prior to the 4th century, we must read what the losers wrote. When the dust settles, we will see Jesus was just a man. Perhaps he was even a great man, but he was nothing more than a man. Can I get an “amen?”

How does that portrayal of Jesus and the early church strike you? Is it more palatable than the Bible’s rendition and traditional church history? Before you go your way thinking I have affirmed what you suspected about the real Jesus and organized religion, I must tell you that there is a problem with my story. It is made up. It is nothing more than pearl-stringed notions. Like all historical fiction, there is just enough of a connection with history to make it seem plausible to the uninformed. I compiled the ideas from things I’ve heard other people say and from what I’ve read by revisionist historians and skeptics. However, the fact is, it is purely speculation fraught with the skeptic’s bias.

 

Before diving into some facts, I think it is important to name some names. There have been several books in recent years that have offered alternative stories, or revisionist history, about the life of Jesus—some have made the New York Times Bestsellers list. One such book I was given by a former Bible-believing family member, was Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013). Ten years before Zealot, there was The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003). That book is one of the best-selling books of all times at 80 million copies sold by 2009. It was made into a movie in 2006, featuring Tom Hanks. According to Wikipedia, “The film grossed $224 million in its worldwide opening weekend and a total of $758 million worldwide, becoming the second highest-grossing film of 2006.” Collectively, Dan Brown’s novels have sold more than 200 million copies!

Granted, The Da Vinci Code was marketed as fiction because it was a murder mystery novel. However, the murder story was intertwined with “the historical Jesus” concepts. (Those “in the know” recognize that term associated with scholars from the Jesus Seminar dating back to the 1980’s.) But, in these books, the real fiction is its historical narrative!

My criticism is nothing new. Both works I mentioned have come under fire for their poor history—see here for Zealot and here for The Da Vinci Code. I suspect, however, that of the millions who have read the books and watched the movie, a disproportionately low number are concerned about their historical integrity. In my case, my family member appealed to Reza Aslan’s credentials for credibility. He has a PhD. And he had his own show on CNN, Believer (which was a casualty of the volatile world of political correctness). So, there you go, Zealot IS reliable after all [tongue-in-cheek]. The point is that opposition to biblical orthodoxy and traditional Christian history left the distilleries of academia, was sold through the speakeasies of mass media outlets, and has inebriated ordinary Americans.

Earlier this year, I dialogued with a co-worker about some of the things you’ll read next in this blog. I attempted to correct his Da Vinci Code perspective. I asked how he knew what he was saying about Constantine, conspiracies, and church history was accurate. His answer was that he had watched documentaries about it; and “not to be rude,” he told me, “they are historians.” Oh my! I see. I couldn’t resist (not to brag, but to make a point), “I do have a Master of Theology degree in Church History and am pursuing a Doctorate [D.Ed.Min] in Apologetics from world-renown seminaries. Does that qualify me as a historian?”

scale

What exactly is a historian and how does one “do history?” Do professional historians follow standardized processes to maintain quality control? Is there anything resembling a bar exam for membership into their associations? Are their governing boards dedicated to ensuring professional and historical integrity? Is the popular, “The Da Vinci Code perspective” accurate or is it a false trail?

In these posts, I’ll examine a couple of prominent claims—the pre-4th century Christian church did not recognize the four Gospels as authoritative and that non-canonical Gospels fill in historical gaps about Jesus, debunking traditional Christian history. By the end, we will separate the genuine from the impostors and have the real, historical Jesus to please stand up.

Implications of the Resurrection

worship

If you have followed along in this series of blog posts, I trust that you recognize my desire to engage in thoughtful discussions of the matters of the Christian faith. I absolutely understand why topics such as the resurrection seem like fantasy and myth rather than reality and serious history. As I stated in the opening section, I and most Christians I know, also dispute, refute, and disbelieve so-called “miracle” stories. These accounts really have no bearing upon Christianity whatsoever. My faith does not live or die on them. And frankly, I suspect that most of these anecdotes have a purely naturalistic explanation. But the resurrection of Jesus is different on several levels.

In the debate with atheist Antony Flew, Gary Habermas makes the point, to which Flew confirmed, no other founder of a significant religion ever claimed to perform miracles. Jesus is unique. His claims were unique and relatively outlandish. Though many people consider Jesus as one of the “great teachers” alongside Buddha, Confucius, Gandhi, and etc., He cannot be classified as such. C.S. Lewis famously and rightly said that one must consider Jesus in one of three categories: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. His teaching included, even founded upon His claims to Deity. To be a great intellect or one among other great men is to undermine His teaching altogether. You see, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. The problem for the skeptic is that history proves His claim is valid. The historical record of human history that even makes us aware of the great teachers, attests to the Deity of Jesus. These implications place the greatest demand upon each of us to heed His words. As the writer of Hebrews states “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”

Jesus showed us God. He showed us that although God is holy and just who judges every evil though, motive, and deed and there will one day be a day of reckoning, He is also a God who condescends to meet with us, to reach out to us, to offer us hope. In the Bible, We see Jesus talking to the skeptics of the world. We see Him explaining and showing that there is more to reality than the physical world. The miracles He performed had multiple purposes. They validated His claims of Deity.

One of my personal favorite accounts of Jesus was the paralytic who was lowered through the roof before Him (Luke 5:18-25). The story goes that the house was full of people, clamoring to be with him, to be healed, to listen to Him. It was so crowded that this man’s friends decided to remove the roof above Jesus and lower him down. What a sight that must have been. It demanded Jesus’ attention. He was not perturbed by the incident, but instead admired the faith of the paralytic’s friends. Instead of healing the man, Jesus stated “Your sins are forgiven.” How interesting! Imagine being the paralyzed man. Was he disappointed by this pronouncement? He was not restored to health. Furthermore, Jesus knowingly provoked the religious leaders in the room.

These religious leaders, not Jesus’ friends, immediately recognized his claim of deity in that pronouncement. They responded with the greatest disdain, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” The punishment for blasphemy was death. Eventually they had their way on this matter, but for now they were just provoked. Jesus knew exactly what He was doing.

This situation, a paralyzed man before and a spiritual claim made, also shows us that Jesus is aware of the difficulty of believing a spiritual reality exists in a physical world. He addresses this directly by asking, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” Certainly it is easier to say “your sins are forgiven” because you cannot prove that. It is un-seeable. It cannot be proven or refuted. His disciples would believe it, just because He said it. His detractors would not believe it because He said it. Perhaps you would not believe it, because you do not believe in a spiritual reality involving God and the need for His forgiveness of your sins against Him. His claim to forgive the man’s sin could not be proven by the proclamation alone.

Therefore, Jesus took things to the next level. Surely the tension in the air was palpable. Here is a poor, broken man who wants to be healed. His friends have made a spectacle of themselves before everyone. The religious leaders were furious. The crowd was all eyes and ears. Jesus knowingly orchestrated the situation to prove His claim of Deity. He said, “’But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’—He said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home.’” Immediately he got up before them, and picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God.

In this instance, Jesus claimed to be God, claimed there is a spiritual reality over a purely naturalistic one, and proved it by performing a miracle. The resurrection was the ultimate validating miracle. It was the greatest demonstration of power and His claim of Deity. The implication is unmistakable. If Jesus is God, then who are we and what else has He said and does He require anything of me?

The resurrection, though validating Jesus’ claims and really all of the history and claims of the entire bible, had another purpose. The resurrection secured the salvation of all those who repent of their sin toward God and have faith in Him. You see, the resurrection is tied to the crucifixion. We understand from the Bible, that each of us has broken the Law of God and the just thing for a holy Judge to do is to punish the lawbreaker. He said that the wages of sin is death. But the “Good News” or “Gospel” is that Jesus’ death carried out that death sentence and was a substitution for your guilt. The wrath of God against sin and evil and disobedience was directed at His Son who was not guilty at all—who had not displeased God, His Father, in any way whatsoever. Here we see what Peter meant when he wrote, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”

Like Jesus with the paralytic in front Him, we hear an unprovable, spiritual claim being made—Jesus’ death was a substitution for you and me and our guilt. We deserved the death penalty, but Jesus paid it for us. All He demands of us is to confess our sin, agree with Him that we have offended God, turn our hearts away from our love of self and sin and turn toward Him in love, trust Him by faith. For we are told that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”—So, how can we know if this spiritual claim is true? In the case of the paralytic, Jesus healed him. In the case of His claims that His death paid for sin, He rose from the dead just like He said He would. His resurrection established proof and hope that we too will be raised from the dead, forgiven, washed clean of the guilt of our sin.

You see, the “debate” about the resurrection far exceeds winning or losing an argument. See that the resurrection of Jesus is an historical event, proving spiritual claims, with the greatest implications of eternity. The first question I asked in this blog is the question before you now, “Is the resurrection believable?” I hope you see that it is entirely believable and the risen Jesus calls you even now to believe in Him, pleading with you, saying, “Follow Me.”

A Resurrection? I Object!

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Sherlock Holmes Quote[1]

-The Sign of Foursherlock

 

I ran Plantinga’s argument (see Blog #4) by my nineteen-year-old son, to see how acceptable the acclaimed philosopher’s thoughts would be taken in a real-world context. My son didn’t buy it. Perhaps his innate common-sense realism just didn’t buy into it. Nevertheless, it could indeed be the case that any naturalist who may read this blog won’t buy it either. Firmly holding to his materialistic ground, the resurrection skeptic sets forth several options that explain the resurrection naturally. This post will consider some of the common naturalistic explanations that have been proposed and the common retorts. Gary Habermas rightfully explains that to say “resurrections just don’t happen” is insufficient. Denial is a claim only and not a theory.[2] The skeptic must provide his own explanation. Hopefully, by the end of this post, reader and author alike will confirm Sherlock Holmes’ point above and accept the truth, no matter how improbable it may seem.

The first refutation of the resurrection of Jesus is found in the pages of the Bible itself. Matthew 28:11-15

Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

The obvious thing to note here is that the text plainly tells us this naturalistic explanation is a hoax, a conspiracy, and the real story had just been presented. If we take the Bible for what it says, the objection must immediately be dismissed. But perhaps the Bible is using some sort of psychological trick to disguise the truth and the hoax actually lies with its own explanation. The author is the conspirator after all and the disciples did steal the body.

For the sake of argument then, let’s consider the events and why that theory is implausible. It is implausible for several combined reasons. First, these tombs were built intentionally to keep grave robbers out, not to keep dead people from escaping. A 2016 article form the Biblical Archaeological Society explains that the traditional thought that the tomb was sealed with a disk-shaped stone is very unlikely. Of the 900 contemporary tombs, only four were disk-shaped. Of course, the rare of anything is set apart for the ultra-rich, nobility. The other 896 were square (cork-shaped) and were used by commoners, even wealthy ones like Joseph of Arimathea. The disk-shaped stones were designed to be re-opened, to entomb multiple family members over the course of time. The cork shaped ones, as seen in the picture below, could not be moved about easily, once set in place.

tomb-with-stopper-260x195

Moving a giant cork-shaped stone would certainly be a very difficult project physically for the disciples. Though perhaps eleven men could do that. However, they would have to perform this feat with a Roman guard on duty. Here “guard” indicates a company, and not a single soldier. Notice the plurality mentioned in the Matthew text above. Having been in the military, I know that falling asleep on watch is a punishable offense. I am sure for a Roman soldier, the penalty could cost him his life. These soldiers would all have to be asleep to such a degree as to remain undisturbed despite such activity all about them. This theory simply replaces one miracle with another. It is highly unlikely that the disciples, who were observed in public soon afterwards, stole the body of such a locally famous person and successfully hid it. Also, it is very unlikely that these disciples would be willing to die for a hoax, and most did die for their testimony of Jesus. Furthermore, the empty tomb is only half the story. The stolen body theory does not answer the eyewitness’ accounts of Jesus’s appearances.

The more common theory in our day is the hallucination theory. Habermas writes:

After a decades-long hiatus, the subjective vision theory [hallucination] is making a comeback and is again the most popular natural response to Jesus’ resurrection. The most influential version is that argued by German theologian Gerd Lüdemann. After a study of the major resurrection texts in the NT, Lüdemann appeals to “stimulus,” “religious intoxication,” and “enthusiasm” as the states of mind leading to the visions seen by Peter, as well as by others who concluded that Jesus was alive. Lüdemann prefers to speak of these experiences as visions rather than hallucinations, but he is clear that nothing literally happened to Jesus himself.[3]

One problem with this theory is that the disciples’ state of mind was far from being euphoric. They were quite the opposite. The disciples were grieving the loss of their leader. The spirit of the objection is the disciples experienced an extreme emotion—great joy or great grief. But the better rejoinder is not to argue the disciples’ emotional state as the stimulus for hallucinating. Rather it is not likely that groups of people experience the same extremities and the same hallucination simultaneously. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage, which is one of the “minimal facts” approved texts, states that Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred brethren at one time.” Furthermore, Paul states there “many of whom remain until now.” The implication is that his readers did not have to take Paul’s word for it, they could talk to the eyewitnesses personally, if they wish to corroborate the story. This theory also does not account for the Apostle Paul’s testimony, witnessed by others, of an experience with the risen Christ three years later. And we must remember that he was not a disciple in a euphoric or depressed state, instead he was an enemy to Christians, a thoroughgoing unbeliever. Paul was not the only skeptic to have changed his position on the matter of Jesus’ resurrection. The story of “doubting Thomas” and Jesus’ own skeptical brother, James, provide two examples of non-euphoric eyewitnesses. For these reasons, the hallucination theory also seems implausible.

The last naturalist theory that gained wide acceptance in generations past was the so-called “swoon theory.” This argument proposed that Jesus did not really die and that he recovered. The swoon theory has largely faded into oblivion. Jesus’ crucifixion is among the most reliable historical accounts in ancient history. The depiction of His death unmistakably describes death. First, the Romans were experienced crucifiers. They employed various techniques to hasten the death if needed. They would brake ankles in to prevent the person’s ability to push himself upward to inhale, ensuring suffocation. This technique was considered, but the crucifier recognized that Jesus had already expired, according to the Apostle John. To ensure death, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear. The famous description “blood and water poured out” indicates the pericardium sac, surrounding the heart, had been punctured. An article entitled, The Science of the Crucifixion by Cahleen Shrier, PhD. explains this. The swoon theory also decreases in feasibility when we consider again the cork-shaped stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. If Jesus survived crucifixion and a stab to the heart, how could he possibly remove the stone seal? Again, the naturalist theory replaces one miracle with another.

Given the reliability of the death of Jesus, acknowledged even by skeptics, as recorded in the Bible, no naturalistic theory can account for all of the data. Surely, we can see that all naturalistic theories fall short. When this is combined with the overwhelming historical accounts in the affirmative, the skeptic surely must acknowledge that best explanation is the improbable one; namely, Jesus was raised from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is true.

This post is meant to be an introduction to the various alternative, naturalistic explanations that are offered for the resurrection of Jesus. I urge the reader to research the topic using the links I provided. You will find ample material to read or watch which present far more exhaustive and reasoned arguments from both sides of the issue.

[1]http://sherlockholmesquotes.com/ accessed March 10, 2017.

[2]http://garyhabermas.com/articles/trinityjournal_latetwentieth/trinityjournal_latetwentieth.htm accessed March 10, 2017.

[3]Ibid.