Hi again. In my prior post I suggested the possibility that faith and reason belong together. This may seem strange to some but the idea goes all the way back to Jesus himself who said, “Though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand . . .”
Jesus was essentially saying, “Use your head. Examine the evidence. You’ve seen the miracles I’ve been doing; now draw the right conclusions.” Unfortunately many who witnessed the wondrous works of Jesus with their own eyes still did not believe. The truism “seeing is believing” is not always true. Nevertheless, Jesus was asking people to think through the evidence rationally. He was calling people to an informed faith rather than a blind faith.
So if you are a seeker of God or a skeptic of religion, I want to thank you for being here. In this post I hope to offer a small but reasonable argument that will put the question of Jesus’ true identity into perspective. Once we figure out who Jesus is, other things tend to fall into place.
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It seems to me there are only two main possibilities* to explain Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as depicted in the Bible:
1. His 1st-century followers invented him. Or:
2. He was the real thing.
A possible explanation for the “invention” of the Son of God is that he began, perhaps, as a specially enlightened man, and that his followers gradually elevated him to god-status as they looked back on his life.
After all, it’s common for legends and myths to grow and begin circulating and gaining momentum after the death of an illustrious figure. People want something to be true so badly, they make it so.
Elvis Presley is a good example: the iconic American singer/actor died in 1977 but there have been thousands of supposed “Elvis sightings” by devoted fans since his passing. Thus the myth of Elvis lives on, propelled, it would seem, by the fanaticism of his followers.
And in the case of Jesus, perhaps myths from the time period of dying and rising gods provided background fodder for the invention of what’s often called the Christ-myth – that is, the folktale of a Son of God who died for humanity and rose from the dead. Thus the myth of Jesus lives on, passed down through the generations of church history by the naïve zeal of his followers.
It all sounds plausible at first — until, that is, we remember who was doing the inventing of this Son of God: first-century Palestinian Jews. They were strict monotheists. They believed in one God, the God of the Old Testament – Yahweh.
The one thing this group of Jews would never do is create another God (Jesus Christ) alongside Yahweh. There could not be two gods in Israel, at least not in this Israel. Nor was there room for another god in the Roman empire, detracting as it would from Caesar worship and the state-approved gods, on pain of torture and death. Read the accounts of early Christians being slaughtered by the Romans: skewered and burned alive as human torches, thrown to the lions to be torn apart. One Roman author of the day, Tacitus, referred to such persecution as “the utmost refinement of cruelty.” You’ll find little motivation in first-century Christian imagination for god-making.
Respected New Testament scholar Craig Evans sums up the situation: “Christians were regarded as lawless because they either did not obey the law of Moses or did not worship Caesar and the gods of the Romans.” **
So the argument is that 1st-century Palestinian Jews did not invent the Son of God, but rather discovered him in their midst, much to their surprise. ***
If you are naturally skeptical toward the idea of Jesus being the Son of God, I understand. There’s a lot at stake here. You don’t want to act rashly. You don’t want to believe in a fairy-tale.
Yet, I hope you’ll consider the unlikelihood of Palestinian Jews of the time period inventing a “second god” when they faced powerful opposition from both their fellow Jews and the Romans. And if inventing Jesus and starting a new religion was some sort of power-play, it backfired immediately. The early Christians were never in power. In fact, they were persecuted for being “atheists” – those who didn’t worship the gods of the state.
Next post: the presence of multiple source material for the life of Jesus. Do multiple sources make a difference?
*There may be other remote possibilities as well: that Jesus was an extraterrestrial being, a mass hallucination, an apparition — all minor viewpoints.
** Craig A. Evans. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (p 102).
*** For a more extended treatment of first-century Jewish monotheism, see Eddy/Boyd, The Jesus Legend, ch 2.