In the last post I mentioned that, historically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus’ followers fabricated his divinity. More likely, they discovered the Son of God in their midst.
In this post, a simple argument: Palestinian Jews and their close associates were eyewitnesses of the Son of God, and they recorded their observations. They wrote down what they saw and experienced, and that’s how we got the New Testament (NT). And the NT actually represents multiple sources.
Catholic NT scholar Luke Timothy Johnson notes that the creation of at least 27 distinct letters “which, despite their diversity of literary genre, social setting and theological perspective, have the same Jesus as their point of focus. . . . Such highly specific historical phenomena do not arise out of generalized social conditions, psychological laws or religious types. Their necessary and sufficient cause is the death and . . . exaltation of Jesus.” *
What Professor Johnson is getting at is the remarkably unified, coherent portrait of Christ that emerges when one reads the entire NT (comprised of 27 letters). And here it should be remembered that the NT represents a collection of stories and letters composed by several authors. The NT is a library, not a single book.
Critics often focus on the small percentage of difficult passages in the NT (and yes, there are some) but manage to ignore the broad unity therein. A time-honored principle of historical study is that when multiple sources point to the same conclusion, the probability of that conclusion being true increases significantly. **
At this point I should mention that when I think of all the atheist, agnostic, and otherwise skeptical friends I’ve had over the decades, few have been familiar with the NT. Many were well-versed in popularized critiques of the Bible as a whole – stuff they picked up on atheist websites, social media, pop culture, the Bill Mahr show, etc. Honestly, this is disappointing. I’ve been reading the Bible consistently for four decades and I’m still surprised when I open its pages. The plethora of themes and references that fit together so tightly in the NT are amazing, and I can barely keep track of them all.
So when I suggest that the 27 books of the NT all point to the same Jesus, it’s a more substantive argument than some may think. Some may think it Christian propaganda. There’s one sure way to find out: read the New Testament for yourself. It’s the only intellectually honest way to deal with the identity of Jesus.
When you read, watch for common references to topics such as crucifixion, resurrection, blood sacrifice, faith and works, love of neighbor and love of enemy, the relationship of faith to grace, God’s love and wrath, the call to holiness and avoidance of sin, the believer’s love relationship with God, the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, the “old covenant” of Israel versus the “new covenant” of Christ, the kingdom of God, the hope of eternal life, the end times, heaven and hell, and many others. It all fits together like a complex jigsaw puzzle, astonishingly so.
For modern eyes, however, the NT is definitely an ancient work, and therefore requires a reading on its own terms. Some of it I find outright maddening – such as the restrictions placed on women in the life of the church. Yet, when one understands that Jesus went way beyond cultural norms of the day to extend grace and dignity to women (and minorities), and that restrictions placed on women as teachers in the church were often due to their participation in cultic religions or lack of education, things begin to make more sense.
Have you read the NT? Start with the Gospel of Mark. It’s the shortest, simplest, probably written first of the four Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (even though Matthew is the first document in the NT). Then go where you wish, but eventually cover the entire NT. You’ll understand a lot of what you read because it’s straightforward; but some of it will leave you scratching your head. That’s just how it is till you get the chance to dig below the surface and interact with professional commentators, which I’ve been doing a long time . . . and sometimes still scratching my head.
I should also mention that there are about a dozen references to Jesus and Christians from sources outside the church in the ancient world. Tacitus, the Roman historian, talks about the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate under the reign of Tiberius Caesar. He calls the Christian movement a “pernicious superstition” that managed to infect Judea and Rome with its ideas and people. Josephus, the famous Jewish historian of the day, has two passages in his works that mention Jesus, the best of which names Jesus “who was called Christ” as the brother of James who was brought to trial and executed for his Christian faith. Other nonChristian references can be found in the scholarly literature, which I leave to your discovery.***
NonChristian sources are helpful because they reinforce the basic claims of the NT to the existence of Jesus and to a strong (for its small size) movement of Christians in the empire. No, the NT is not just conjured out of thin air or fanciful imagination. Its story is a real time/space sequence of events and people, open to inquiry for historical affirmation or denial.
I’m inspired by the self-proclaimed atheistic journalist, Lee Strobel, of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. When his wife converted to Christianity he launched an investigation into the historical Jesus and the reliability of the NT, thinking to prove his wife and all Christians wrong. What he found shocked him, however. He found the historical evidence for Jesus to be so powerful and convincing that he joined his wife in Christian faith, and wrote the best-selling book The Case for Christ, which I commend to your reading.
Thank you for tracking with me this far. If you’re not accustomed to historical arguments, this is pretty much how they go. Historians examine motives, sources, eye-witness testimony (of friend and foe) and similar such elements, and draw their conclusions based on probabilities. It’s surprising, perhaps, that “informed faith” in Jesus comes down to this: evidence but not proof. If God proved himself you’d have to believe. But God leaves room to dismiss the evidence, dismiss the claims of the Bible and go your own way . . . forever. That’s what hell is, by the way, in its essence: going your own way, forever, without God and without the gifts God has provided here on earth of community, purpose and meaning.
I remember as a late-teenager when I opened myself to the possibility that Jesus was the Son of God — that the history of his life was actually true. It was an eye-opening moment for me and when I embraced it I never turned back. My decision was based on this famous verse from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
I hope you find the Son of God as well.
In the next post I offer some personal reflections, particularly on those who’ve suffered “church-hurt.” And a little philosophying about miracles.
* Beilby and Eddy, The Historical Jesus: Five Views, p 91.
** “Historians look for desirable witnesses that include eyewitness accounts, multiple independent accounts, consistent and corroborative accounts, and unbiased or disinterested accounts.” – Michael Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach Kindle location 1700 (ch 2.5)
*** For an overview of sources, see Boyd/Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, ch 4.