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?
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?”
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.