Apologist Joel Furches unpacks one of the most Googled questions, looking at the nature of Jesus
The Christian Bible is a very controversial book. On the one hand it has some roots in actual history due to its accuracy in referencing historical figures, places, practices and events which have been uncovered by archaeology. On the other hand, it has so many supernatural events about which scholars are understandably sceptical.
Since the Bible is very clearly a religious text, in what sense can it be taken as historical?
This difficulty in untangling the historical from the religious has led to a real problem in figuring out what to do with the religious figure known as Jesus of Nazareth.
The group of scholars who think of Jesus as entirely fictional is vanishingly small. However very few are willing to suggest that we should take the Bible at face-value when figuring out who the real Jesus actually was. This has led many to make a distinction between the biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus.
Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the Bible. But to what degree can the Bible be trusted? The first objection to overcome is that of the miraculous events. If the Bible had included Jesus’ travels, teachings and the account of his death without all of the healings, exorcisms and resurrections, then historians would have very little difficulty in believing that the accounts were likely historically accurate. Here are a few reasons they qualify for historical accuracy:
Interestingly, the Bible contains four separate biographies of Jesus’ life. Whereas they have many similarities – three of them seeming to draw the stories from a common source – they also bear enough differences to carry the hallmarks of eyewitness testimony.
It is widely believed that the book of Mark was the first to be written down. The book is named after John Mark – who is the author of the book according to early tradition. A variety of early church writings from at least 3 sources tell us that John Mark was an educated young man who followed Peter and Paul on their missionary trips.
Because Mark was able to write (an uncommon quality in the first century), other followers of Peter in the Roman church asked Mark to write down Peter’s stories about Jesus in Greek so that the stories would be available to read after Peter was gone.
The book of Mark is not written as a smooth biographical account with neat transitions from story to story. Rather the narrative jumps around rapidly, and reads very much like sermon notes which have been jotted down. Further evidence that Mark was written from Peter’s accounts include the fact that the book paints the disciple Peter as the main character frequently, saying things like “Peter and the other disciples went out” or “Peter spoke up and the rest agreed.” Mark records the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the fact that Jesus had moved to Peter’s hometown, referring to that town as “his home.”
Should the early traditions and evidence within the book itself be true, then Mark was at the very least the transcription of an eyewitness account.
The book of Luke states upfront that its author was not an eyewitness, however he had access to eyewitnesses, and his stated intent is to (unlike Mark) write the stories in an ordered manner. Luke appears to use the book of Mark as a source, but also includes what appear to be eyewitness accounts from Jesus’ women followers.
The book of John claims in no uncertain terms to be a direct eyewitness account, reiterating this point repeatedly throughout the books. Unlike the other 3, John includes new stories, many of which seem to have the intent of stressing their eyewitness nature (including the “doubting Thomas” tale, wherein the witness physically touches the risen Jesus).
We also have fairly direct testimony suggesting that John, the disciple, was indeed the author of that book. This comes from an early church writer named Ireanus. Ireanus wrote in the early second century, but was a disciple of a man named Polycarp. Polycarp, in turn, was a disciple of John himself. This gives us fairly close testimony that John was the author of this book.
But the suggestion of eyewitness testimony is not exclusive to the authorship of the books. One way in which the books support one another’s accounts are in accidental details which were clearly not placed there intentionally. For instance Matthew records that when Jesus called his first disciples, they were sitting around and mending their fishing nets. Luke records the event of this calling and includes the fact that the disciples had just caught an enormous haul of fish which had broken their nets. So Luke explains the detail in the book of Matthew.
Matthew talks about the Roman ruler of Israel, Herod, hearing about the works of Jesus. Luke mentions that one of Jesus’ women followers was the wife of Herod’s advisor, explaining how he would have heard of Jesus.
Matthew tells us that Peter somehow made it into the inner courtyard of the Sanhedrin to witness Jesus’s trial, but doesn’t tell us how he gained access to such an exclusive location. John tells us that “another disciple” (probably John himself) went with Peter, and was a friend of the gatekeeper.
There are many more small, unintended details in the four Gospels, which taken together create the kinds of corroboration seen only in eyewitness testimony. Because of their eyewitness nature, the Gospel accounts cannot be immediately dismissed as inaccurate, even though they are also religious.
In addition to their eyewitness nature, the Gospels also accurately portray the geography, culture, political figures and historical events of the time period that we know from other written sources and archeology. These things alone make it possible – perhaps even likely – that the Gospels have some true things to say.
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Let’s say, however, that you are still sceptical about the Jesus the Bible portrays. There are contemporary sources outside of the Bible which also speak of Jesus. One of these is a Jewish historian writing for a Roman audience whose name was Josephus. As a Jew, Josephus would have little motivation to make up stories about Jesus, and his Roman audience probably wouldn’t be interested in reading such fictions. Nevertheless, Josephus records the rise of Jesus as a popular teacher, his death, the reports of his resurrection, and the rise of the Christian church thereafter. Josephus wrote these things within the first century, and relatively close to the events he was recording.
A Roman historian named Tacitus also wrote within the first century. As little motivation as Josephus might have to compliment Jesus or his followers, Tacitus had plentiful motivation to dislike Christians – and he evidently did. Tacitus writes that, despite the execution of the troublesome Jesus, these scandalous Christians still persisted in their beliefs. He then reported on the various tortures and attempts at extermination carried out by the Romans to rid themselves of these persistent scoundrels.
Writing in the first century, the Syrian philosopher Mara Bar-Serapion lists Jesus alongside of Socrates and Pythagoras as wise men who were killed for their teachings.
Similar to Tacitus above, the extensive commentaries Jewish Rabbis wrote on religion, known as the Talmud, contains an early reference to Jesus which is none too complimentary. The Talmud accuses Jesus of witchcraft and leading the Jewish youth astray, and records the execution of Jesus as a result of his crimes.
From these non-biblical accounts alone we can gather that Jesus lived, taught, allegedly performed supernatural feats, was killed, was reported to have resurrected and gained a loyal following.
A supernatural Jesus
The resurrection of Jesus is both a well-testified miracle in the available sources and the only miracle necessary for Christianity to be true. What are the implications of a supernatural Jesus?
As mentioned above, Jesus as a supernatural being has been largely unproblematic for religious or even vaguely spiritualistic people around the globe and throughout the centuries. Hindus who see Jesus as a sort of Brahman or Buddhists who see him as an enlightened master don’t have difficulty with his miracle reports. Jesus’ miracles are a central part of Muslim doctrine. The Jewish Talmud reports them as being acts of witchcraft, and New Age spiritualists have seen Jesus as everything from a spiritual guide to an extraterrestrial.
Whatever else he may have been, Jesus was very much a Jew. Both Matthew and Luke go to lengths to chronicle Jesus’ Jewish lineage, Jesus participates in all of the Jewish holidays, Jesus regularly quotes Jewish scriptures, and evidently had the appearance of a Jew, as he was recognized on site as a Jew both by Jews and Samaritans who encountered him.
Under Jewish doctrine, a person who did supernatural acts was either a prophet of God, or a false prophet meant to mislead people. The Talmud considers him the latter. Jewish doctrine from the books of Moses holds that one must discern a prophet both by deeds and by words. If the prophet’s message isn’t consistent with the scriptures, he is clearly a false prophet. This leads us to examine how Jesus’ life and teachings reflect on Jewish scriptures.
Jesus was an odd sort of Messiah in the Gospels. Whereas he would admit to being the Messiah when confronted by the disciples of John the Baptist, by his own disciples, or in a discrete midnight meeting with a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus regularly counselled people to remain quiet about his miraculous deeds, and declined to take a leadership role when one was insisted upon him. He seemed content to remain an itinerant teacher rather than ascend to the throne as the Messiah ought to do.
When Jesus was killed by the Gentile oppressors rather than freeing Israel and assuming the throne, this robbed his followers of hope, and confirmed to his enemies that he was not any kind of Messiah that scripture had predicted.
This is the common objection of Jews through the ages that Jesus could not have been the Messiah because he did not do the work of a Messiah: become a national liberator and a political ruler. But this is not an objection made after the fact; it was made in the Gospels themselves. Jesus’ detractors and disciples alike both voiced issue with his avoidance of political power.
However, Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels was not so inconsistent with Messiahship as it may otherwise seem. If one examines the Messianic characters throughout the Bible, they all follow the same pattern. Joseph came to his brothers with visions of being their ruler. His brothers beat him and sold him into slavery. In spite of this abuse, Joseph returned as a king and liberated his entire family from starvation.
Moses came down from his palace and began to mingle with his people. After saving one of them from the abuses of a slave master, his people rejected him and drove him into the wilderness. Many years later he returned as their great liberator.
David was anointed to be king as a teenager. He came onto the battlefield and single-handedly defeated the enemy’s strongest warrior, driving away the enemies of the Jews. But he was driven out and hunted for several years by King Saul. Once King Saul came to defeat, David rode in with his warriors to deliver Israel and take the throne. This story of rejection and return is thematic throughout the Bible, and exactly the kind of doctrine seen in Christianity.
However, Christians do not see Jesus merely as Messiah, but also as God incarnate. Is there any evidence for this? Jesus made claims to Godhood in the Gospels. He said “I and the Father are one,” “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” and “Before Abraham was, I am.”
Moreover, there is strong suggestion that the Messiah may well be God incarnate. In the book of Zechariah, God speaks to Israel about their liberation, and he says “When they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him.” In the prophecy in Micah wherein the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem is predicted, it says that “His coming forth is from old, the ancient of days.” In the famous passage in Isaiah which speaks of the virgin birth, it says that the son who is born will be called “Wonderful counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” The idea of a Messiah who is God incarnate is not foreign to the language of the Jewish scriptures.
So who is the real Jesus? The case can be made that the Jesus of the Bible was the real Jesus, that he is the saviour of humankind, and God incarnate.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA