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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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!