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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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.