We are now covering a description of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth which is in Chapters 16-18 of Greg Koukl’s book (The Story of Reality). (If you are new to this series, check out the first post and the intervening posts to put this in context.)
Did Jesus Actually Exist?
Pretend for a second that you had never heard of Jesus. For some reason you were drawn to the ancient history of Rome. Pulling the thread through your redistilled and repackaged college or high school history books you stumble upon the idea that it would be cool to look at original sources. These letters and ancient accounts of events in the first century are readily available in today’s Internet-connected society. No doubt you would come across the following influential Romans: Thallus (52 AD), Tacitus (56-120 AD), Mara Bar-Serapion (70 AD), Phlegon (80-140 AD), Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), Suetonius (69-140 AD), Lucian of Samosata (115-200 AD), and Celsus (175 AD). You would also find some Jewish historians and writings that cover the history of the first century: Josephus (37-101 AD), the Jewish Talmud (400-700 AD), and the Toledot Yeshu (1000 AD).
All these authors and documents have two important things in common:
- They all mention Jesus of Nazareth or his followers.
- They all are NOT a part of Jesus’s following. They would be what forensic investigators call Hostile Witnesses. They have no reason to embellish the historical record to make Jesus “look good”.
This material comes from J. Warner Wallace’s blog ColdCaseChristianity.com. Read this and this for more depth on what these ancient sources say. (Read his book Cold Case Christianity for a forensic analysis of the Christian Faith. He was an atheistic cold case investigator when he turned his investigation skills on the Bible to specifically prove it wrong. Following the evidence, he became a Christian.)
Here is his summary from Wallace’s blog of what these non-Christian sources have to say about Jesus.
Jesus was born and lived in Palestine. He was born, supposedly, to a virgin and had an earthly father who was a carpenter. He was a teacher who taught that through repentance and belief, all followers would become brothers and sisters. He led the Jews away from their beliefs. He was a wise man who claimed to be God and the Messiah. He had unusual magical powers and performed miraculous deeds. He healed the lame. He accurately predicted the future. He was persecuted by the Jews for what He said, betrayed by Judah Iskarioto. He was beaten with rods, forced to drink vinegar and wear a crown of thorns. He was crucified on the eve of the Passover and this crucifixion occurred under the direction of Pontius Pilate, during the time of Tiberius. On the day of His crucifixion, the sky grew dark and there was an earthquake. Afterward, He was buried in a tomb and the tomb was later found to be empty. He appeared to His disciples resurrected from the grave and showed them His wounds. These disciples then told others Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven. Jesus’ disciples and followers upheld a high moral code. One of them was named Matthai. The disciples were also persecuted for their faith but were martyred without changing their claims. They met regularly to worship Jesus, even after His death.
In Greg Koukl’s book the Story of Reality, he takes on the so-called Jesus mythers – people who claim that Jesus was a recycled version of ancient polytheistic myths with virgin births and resurrections. This claim needs to be addressed because it is implied in nearly every social studies class in high school (confirmed by my son – a high school freshman). This tale was also promulgated in the internet film Zeitgeist. It was also completely and clearly debunked by Chris White.
What is sad is the lack of historical knowledge behind this claim. The hostile sources above are describing near term events in the first century that confirm Biblical claims about Jesus.
It is also sad to think of the tortured logic behind the Jesus-is-a-myth claim. How would devout Jews like Peter and Paul be enticed away from the Jewish religion and all-encompassing Jewish culture to follow some cobbled-together collection of Zoroastrian and other myths?
Finally, if the virgin birth and resurrection claims were made up in the late 3rd century, why do the hostile sources near the first century already have the so-called made up facts as part of their reports? Why do we have records of early Christians going to their deaths over the truth of these claims?
“The recycled-redeemer crowd asks why we should consider the stories of Mithras, Horus, Attis, and other pagan mystery saviors as fables, yet treat as factual (what they think is) a similar story told of a Jewish carpenter. The answer is simple: There is no good historical evidence for any of the ancient mythological characters and their deeds, but there is an abundance of reliable historical evidence for Jesus. … Jesus of Nazareth was a man of history, who made a profound impact on history.”
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter did not write about Jesus as if they were making up “once upon a time” stories. They claimed that what they observed was observable by anyone present at the events they describe.
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you … [1 John 1:1-2]
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared
- to Cephas, then
- to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared
- to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared
- to James, then
- to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also
- to me.
9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [1 Corinthians 15:3-9 ESV]
OK, so if we stipulate that Christ was an actual person in the first century who was a miracle worker and who is claimed to have risen from the dead. So what? Why is that significant?
The Person of Christ
This is so important to discuss and so timely with the recent opening of the movie The Shack – a fictional story that is full of distorted views on God and Christianity. The book was a New York Times Bestseller, and the movie is sure to attract many. And even though it is fiction, it will have a negative impact on those who do not know what the Bible actually teaches on the nature of God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
(For a two part series on the Trinity see Greg Koukl’s Solid Ground Articles Part 1 and Part 2.)
The power of entertainment to shape a people’s thinking was eloquently captured by a Scottish writer in 1703. Andrew Fletcher said,
“if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws”
I’m not an isolationist. See movies. Read books. But realize that fiction is not fact. Don’t let Dan Brown’s fiction in the Da Vinci Code, or William Young’s The Shack be your source for knowledge about the teachings of Christianity or for knowledge about REALITY.
Jesus was truly a human, a man. He was born like us (although the Bible tells us his conception was special). He grew up like us. He had a job like us (a carpenter). He hungered, thirsted, and wept like us. He fretted about death just like us. We see that he even suffered, bled, and died like us. He was one of us.
But Jesus also made divine claims. He predicted that his death and resurrection would be a sign that his claims were true. Jesus was truly God, according to his own claims.
Saying these outrageous things often prompted the Jews to pick up stones to put him to death for claiming to be God.
30 I and the Father are one.”
31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him.
32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”
33 The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” [John 10:30-33 ESV]
And now we begin to see why the “Who is Jesus?” question is so important. If Jesus is not who he claimed to be, ignore him as a mad man or (if he knew his claims were false) an imbecile, since he played his charade right to its gruesome end. If his claim is true, however, that changes everything. “Aut Deus, aut malus homo,” the ancients wrote. “Either God, or a bad man.” There is no middle ground.
The Work of Christ
I cannot say it any better than Paul in his letter to the Romans:
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. [Romans 5:6-8 ESV]
19 For as by the one man’s disobedience [Adam] the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience [Jesus] the many will be made righteous. [Romans 5:19 ESV]
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 ESV]
5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. … 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! [Romans 7:5, 24-25a ESV]
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. … 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. [Romans 8:1, 11 ESV]
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:35-39 ESV]
Therefore, in line with Andrew Fletcher’s comment that ballads have an outsized impact, let’s end with a hymn from Martin Luther about the Person and Work of Christ:
1 Now praise we Christ, the Holy One,
The blessed virgin Mary’s Son.
From east to west, from shore to shore
Let earth its Lord and King adore.
2 He who himself all things did make
A servant’s form agreed to take,
That he as man mankind might win
And save his creatures from their sin.
3 The grace and pow’r of God the Lord
Upon the mother was outpoured;
A virgin pure and undefiled
In wondrous way conceived a child.
4 The noble mother bore a Son —
For so did Gabriel’s promise run —
Whom John confessed and leaped with joy
Before the mother knew her boy.
5 Upon a manger filled with hay
In poverty content he lay;
With milk was fed the Lord of all,
Who feeds the ravens when they call.
6 The heav’nly choirs rejoice and raise
Their voice to God in songs of praise.
To humble shepherds is proclaimed
The Shepherd who the world has framed.
7 All honor unto Christ the Lord,
Eternal and incarnate Word,
With Father and with Holy Ghost,
Till time in endless time be lost.
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