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The Real Jesus of History
by Joel Stephen Williams
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: 14, 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? 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. 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, it is hoped that this pamphlet will bring some clarity to the issues and encourage faith in Christ for the reader.
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 Gospel," 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
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 cannot 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.
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 noncanonical, 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 written 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 is 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 I 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" (I 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. [more likely, 33 AD] 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. For example, examine the following narrative which is found in all four Gospels.
Mark 1:9-11: 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."
Luke 3:21-22: 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."
Matthew 3:13-17: 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."
John 1:29-34: 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 God. "
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, changes were made. 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 --