Spoiler alert: Jesus was a mere mortal man not the divine son of God
The most effective method of unearthing the historical Jesus is by positing two antithetical hypotheses then making a reasonable determination of which theory is most probable. Was Jesus who the New Testament writers claim? Or was he a misguided Israelite with messianic aspirations that ended in his death? Essentially it comes down to whether he was just a man or the eternal Son of God.
Note to Reader: The amount of relevant material on the topic of Jesus and the Bible is extensive. These articles are intended to touch on multiple corollary topics as they arise without getting “bogged down” on any one of them. With this in mind, I urge the reader to investigate the data further as their own personal mission to uncover the truth. I will continue to provide as much information as I can to identify avenues of inquiry to pursue.
The mystery man from Galilee
Who Jesus was is shrouded in uncertainty. The New Testament portrait of Jesus is unreliable and highly subjective. It is a confluence of the earthly Jesus (Historical) and heavenly Christ (Mythical). Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew, actually a Galilean (nativity) Judean (religion) Israelite (ethnicity), to be precise.
Misconceptions about Jesus abound. Two thousand years of Christian tradition have painted so many theological layers on top of the authentic Jesus as to render him virtually unrecognizable.
Approximately, one-third of the world are Christians. Even if you are a nominal Christian, what you believe about Jesus will be clouded by some faith. One quarter of the world is Muslim who think Jesus was at the very least a prophet. The rest of the world has a general view of Jesus as a great moral teacher and friend to all that stops short of his being the messiah. Some people don’t believe he ever existed. All of these are mischaracterizations. So who was he?
Jesus was probably born in relative poverty and obscurity. The traditional Christmas portrayal of his manger birth in Bethlehem is a fiction invented around Hebrew prophecy to bolster his messianic credentials. He was born in Nazareth, a remote town in the northern region of Galilee. His father, Joseph, was likely a carpenter. Jesus occupation is unknown though he may have apprenticed with his father. He had several brothers and sisters who despite growing up with him failed to recognize his divine calling. It is probable his mother who curiously disappears from the biblical record after his death never subscribed to the heavenly messiah theory of her son.
54Coming to his [Jesus’] hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55“Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” 58And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.” (Matthew 13:54-58)
Mark stresses how those closest to Jesus were least likely to honor him.
4Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” (Mark 6:4)
Luke describes how the people of Nazareth were so furious at Jesus teaching they wanted to kill him. The basis of their anger was Jesus’ unwillingness to perform the same miracles of healing at home as he was doing abroad (Luke 4:16-30). Is this reaction consistent with the narratives?
Luke and Matthew’s nativity stories portray Jesus as the Messiah King not a prophet. The magicians from the east come to Jerusalem in search of “the one who has been born King of the Jews.”(Matt. 2:2)
The Lord sends the angel Gabriel to Mary with this message about the miraculous birth of her son.
“32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32,33)
Also, an angel announces this royal birth to the shepherds.
11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
Both narratives, if historical, offer strong testimony neither Jesus birth nor his kingly office were secretive or private. Furthermore, Luke provides additional information about what transpired between his birth and the beginning of his public ministry.
41Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
49“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” f 50But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
51Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”(Luke 2:41-52)
By this passage we have no reason to doubt Jesus frequently went to Jerusalem to attend the various festivals from age twelve onward. It can be safely assumed he was no stranger to the synagogue or Temple (“my Father’s house”) throughout his life. Therefore, this reception seems inconsistent with people intimately acquainted with Jesus divine appointment. Why did they not see him as a “holy man?” Jesus would be unable and unwilling to hide his messianic credentials for thirty years. Furthermore, the town of Nazareth would be a focal point for all Israelites anticipating his coming out as messiah.
If the biblical record were true, Jesus would not have been able to live in obscurity nor keep his role as future king “a secret.” However, his hometowns reaction to him as a recent prophet is perfectly natural — guarded skepticism.
Luke includes two curious texts suggesting Mary “treasured (“and pondered,” vs. 19) all these things in her heart” (vs. 51). The idea expressed in these verbs is “guarding something within yourself.” Why the author felt the need to make these deliberate statements is unclear. It might help explain her unwillingness to share this great news but for what reason?
We are forced to wonder why she or any other of the multiple witnesses at his birth would not broadcast this glorious news throughout the land as the shepherds had (Lk. 2:17,18). Also according to Luke, Jesus was consecrated in the Temple in Jerusalem where he was heralded by Simeon.
29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss d your servant in peace.
30For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-31)
Anna a long standing prophetess also recognizes Jesus’ future messianic role.
38”Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38)
After the ceremony, Mary, Joseph and Jesus return to Nazareth.
40”And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.”(Luke 2:40)
Is it really plausible given the celebration surrounding Jesus’ birth and subsequent return to Nazareth, his true identity would not be widely known?
The Christmas story holds some relevant insights as well, if taken as historical. If we accept the premise Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth and told nobody the truth about Jesus, more questions surface.
According to Luke’s nativity story Mary, was pregnant during her betrothal period to Joseph when the travelled to Bethlehem to register for Caesar Augustus’ census (Lk. 2:1-5). Matthew offers Joseph’s perspective.
18This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18,19)
Luke and Matthew has made it clear both Mary (“highly favored,” Lk. 1:28) and Joseph (see above, vs. 19) were righteous law abiding Israelites (2:22,39). Obviously, if God chose them to give birth to the Redeemer of Israel, they would have to have a spotless reputation. With this in mind, what would they say about Mary getting pregnant before their marriage?
Here’s the scenario to consider. Mary gets pregnant before her marriage to Joseph. Joseph learns of it and decides to divorce her because he is “faithful to the law.” He is informed by an angel this birth is from God via his spirit so he relents. For the next six months they remain in Nazareth among family, friends and acquaintances (Note: Mary has spent the first three months of her pregnancy away from Nazareth in Judea with her cousin Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, Lk. 1:26, 39, 56). They travel to Bethlehem for the census where Jesus is born. There is great celebration at the birth of the, “Son of the Most High” in Bethlehem and later in the Temple during his dedication where six months earlier the birth of John (the Baptist) had garnered immense interest and speculation (Lk. 1:57, 65-66). The couple returns to Nazareth after Jesus’ consecration. What happens now?
It is inconceivable Joseph and Mary could have a child out of wedlock without divulging their incredible secret given the parameters of the law to which they subscribed. The alternative would be full disclosure. Mary would have to tell of her miraculous conception and angelic visitation to avoid being ostracized by the community. And given she was to be the mother of the son of God it would be crucial her pregnancy was viewed as legitimate.
Nazareth and eventually all of Israel would have learned of this glorious event and would have had foreknowledge of Jesus coming role as Messiah. Each time Jesus visited Jerusalem he would have been swarmed by throngs of adoring “messiah watchers” wanting to know the day of his public unveiling. Most certainly when John the Baptist began his ministry which in the nativity stories is inextricably linked to Jesus and his birth, public interest would have peaked. But this is entirely inconsistent with what is recorded about Jesus in the gospels.
Jesus role as king appears unknown to his family and friends and those (Galileans) who would be most likely to have been privy to this knowledge. Before he begins his ministry, Jesus is widely regarded as a nobody. His baptism should have generated a massive response and thousands of followers. There would never have been a crucifixion because during his ministry while performing hundreds of miracles, the entire country of Judea would have pledged allegiance to him. Jews from throughout the Roman Empire would have flocked to Judea to herald their king. God would have inaugurated the kingdom and restored Israel. This didn’t happen because the nativity stories are fictional.
The creation of the nativity stories was necessitated by Jesus’ elevation to messiah. It was paramount for the survival of the fledgling religion to firmly establish Jesus’ prophetic pedigree. The challenge was to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, despite being known to have come from Nazareth.
25At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? 26Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Messiah? 27But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.”(John 7:25-27)
40”On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” 41Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.” (John 7:40-44)
Using Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 7:14 as primary proof texts early Christians devised two elaborate stories (Matthew and Luke’s nativities) around these prophecies. First, the virgin birth story fabricated to establish Jesus’ divinity. Second, Jesus’ Davidic ancestry must be constructed to offset his Galilean heritage. Luke records Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth and traveling to Bethlehem while Matthew describes them as living in Bethlehem and moving to Nazareth.
Many details in the two narratives are conflicting and contradictory, but they also undermine the secrecy theory of Jesus’ messiahship.
The “Messianic Secret”
The “messianic secret” proposes Jesus adamantly insisted his disciples and those whom he healed not tell others of his identity (Matt. 16:20, Mk. 8:29,30, also Mk. 1:43-45; 5:43; 7:36). It could reasonable be deduced from the narratives Jesus primary role was that of prophet and not king until his final Passover.
13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, b and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades c will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be d bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be e loosed in heaven.” 20Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” (Matthew 16:13-20)
John’s gospel records the people’s reaction to Jesus’ “sign” of feeding “five thousand men.” This same event is recorded in the synoptics with no mention of intending to “make him king by force.”
14”After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:14,15)
Except for the gospel of John’s elevated view of Jesus as the divine “logos,” the synoptics portrayal of Jesus matches that of a divinely commissioned prophet. The above passage suggests “the people” viewed him as “The Prophet” an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15.
Jesus ministry matched that of a prophet. Healing and teaching in the name of God and boasting a special relationship with God were consistent with the prophetic office. Jesus spoke with the authority of God warning of the consequences of unfaithfulness. His declaration of a coming righteous kingdom was in direct fulfillment of the ancient promises. It is interesting the two disciples on the road to Emmaus make this determination to Jesus himself when queried about his identity.
19””What things”? He asked, About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.” (Luke 24:19)
Everything changed, however, when he arrived in Jerusalem with an entourage of his Galilean disciples. The holy city was swelling with emotionally charged Passover pilgrims. Many would gravitate to Jesus words of an about to arrive promised kingdom when Israel would be liberated from Rome’s rule and restored to glory.
Jesus travelled with his followers through the streets of Jerusalem. When he stopped to preach his small crowd would attract an even larger crowd of curious onlookers eager to hear what he had to say. We may also surmise political activists would also be among those hoping to spark an uprising.
The narratives offer no specifics but it is feasible, those most vocal in their desire for Jesus to take the throne may have been Zealots. One of Jesus disciples, Simon, is described as belonging to the zealot party (Luke 6:15). Those who challenge this theory must account for other anomalies in the narratives.
Biblical scholars are almost unanimous in acknowledging Jesus was executed for his claim as, “King of the Jews.” Yet assuming, as Christians must, the number of those who declared him messiah was at the very least in the thousands, why was there no attempt to demand his release? If a “significant” number of Israelites truly viewed Jesus as Israel’s king, not only would they have petitioned for his release in spite of the religious leaders opposition, they would have begun a revolt for the killing of an innocent Jew.
Nothing in the narrative supports the idea that Jesus popularity was anything but fleeting and minor. As soon as he was arrested, all his so-called “supporters” fled for their lives. The vast majority of Jews attending Passover either never heard of Jesus or didn’t take his Messianic claims seriously enough to support him in his hour of need.
The gospels suggest his arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey marked his public debut as king. I would contest this event is another fabrication used to attach Zechariah’s prophecy to Jesus. It was based on the historical fact he assumed the title of king of Israel during Passover though not with th pomp and pageantry of throngs of people shouting, “Hosanna” and laying down palm fronds and cloaks in front of him.
5“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ” (Matthew 21:5, quoting from Zechariah 9:9).
If Jesus death was an unwelcome tragedy and his resurrection was an unexpected surprise to his followers, the complete lack of a messianic ministry makes sense. Jesus saw himself as a prophet of the Last Days and acted as such and was seen as such by those who listened to him. However, for conservative Christians who resist this claim, a profound question must be addressed.
The BIG “What Ifs”
If Jesus conducted himself surreptitiously as the eternal son of God and future messiah, what was the purpose of his ministry? In other words, given his eternal destiny was to die on the cross for humanity’s sin so mankind could gain eternal life, why not openly announce it?
Reading through the gospels Jesus talks about the kingdom of God having arrived and the means to eternal life being selling one’s possessions or loving God and your neighbor. He never talks to the public about the importance of his death or promised resurrection. Nothing about the earthly Jesus sounds very “Christian.”
The nation of Israel is repeatedly castigated for choosing to reject Jesus as their messiah. God judges them for this decision by “temporarily” offering salvation to Gentiles” and destroying Jerusalem and the Temple. For two thousand years they have continued to suffer for this ill fated decision.
But what if Israel had accepted Jesus as Savior? How would Jesus have been crucified since according to the gospels Pilate saw him as innocent? In other words, if the cross was necessary and inevitable, God must have sovereignly orchestrated events to culminate in this event. Should this not absolve Israelites of their opposition?
The gospel of Dispensationalism
The word “dispensationalism” is one of the most polarizing theological terms in Protestant Christianity. Either you consider it as sacrosanct as the divinity of Jesus and the litmus test for inerrancy. Or it is a repulsive and offensive term which has done more to pervert biblical interpretation than any other force in history. The latter is the more accurate appraisal.
During the first months of my conversion as an insecure teenager without any academic interest, I found myself puzzled when reading the gospels. Jesus did not seem to talk like a born-again evangelical Christian. He seemed more focused on the law than on a spirit filled life of righteousness. I attributed my confusion to my own ignorance and stupidity. When I asked one of the churches leaders he introduced me to the term “dispensationalism.” He assured me this was the key to making sense of the Bible.
My sense of complete inadequacy when it came to the Bible was a defining moment that would dictate the rest of my life. I purposed to devote my life to unravelling the mysteries of the Bible so I never had to be dependent on someone else’s opinion. I have kept this promise to myself all these years.
Throughout the fifteen years of immersion in the evangelical culture both academically and practically, the incongruences between the Hebrew (Old Testament) and Christian Bibles plague me. These seeds of doubt would eventually lead to the complete unravelling of my Christian faith.
When I graduated from seminary, it was the culmination of eight years of theological training at five different evangelical institutions in four countries where I earned two degrees. Ironically, I was also never more uncertain of my evangelical faith.
I would spend the next several decades studying the Bible with equal dedication and for the same reason, to find the truth. The only difference now would be unflinching objectivity unmoved by faith.
Probability versus Factuality: The difference between likelihood and certainty
If we accept the gospel narratives as one hundred percent historically accurate, many questions arise which challenge both accuracy and logical probability.
In other articles we will offer extensive textual analysis of identical events from multiple sources with the question, “Is it possible for every detail to be both factual and compatible?” In this article, we are looking primarily at the degree of probability based on such factors as common sense.
The difficulty when introducing the divine component, as evangelicals do, is God can theoretically override improbability or even impossibility whenever he chooses. To the religious mind, this does not weaken their faith but strengthens it because they expect the God of the universe to do the impossible.
In the world of probability, a coin tossed will come up heads fifty percent of the time every time. However, the chances of it coming up heads ten times in a row are roughly one in one thousand. The chances of it coming up heads one hundred times in a row is roughly one in thirty-five million unless God is doing the flipping. Then the odds change drastically to one hundred in one hundred attempts. Herein lies the difficulty when reasoning someone predisposed to a belief in a personal intimate God.
The door of faith
Consider every evangelical Christian as being behind a “door of faith.” The purpose of this door is to protect them from external forces seeking to challenge, weaken or disrupt their faith. Many have the door tightly shut and locked unwilling to open it to any criticism. Others may have the door slightly ajar just enough to allow a small amount of criticism to get in. These articles are intended to help some open the door wide to allow full exposure of their faith to rational scrutiny. And for those hiding behind closed doors, I hope at some stage these articles may create enough curious doubt they may be willing to slightly open it.
Trying to pry open someone else’s door is futile. It can only be opened from the inside by someone who is willing.
Traditions in tension
The fundamental principle which must be understood when studying the gospels is this:
Belief in Jesus’ resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity and underlies most (less certain gospel material) of the New Testament even though it was born after his death through the mystical experiences of his followers.
New Testament writers were tasked with reconciling multiple traditions which grew from this myth with factual data about Jesus’ earthly ministry. The difficulty is this is like trying to put a theological square peg (literal Jesus) in a theoretical round hole (heavenly Christ). Jesus could not be both the Prophet/Messiah of an already arriving earthly kingdom (Lk. 19:11) AND the soon to come heavenly (divine) Messiah of a current spiritual kingdom. For help they turned to the ancient writings.
Imagine being thoroughly convinced of something which has no prophetic support that it must have prophetic support and diligently searching Hebrew prophecy for “hints” of it.
Science, the new “God”
For centuries Christians approached the biblical text without malicious literary criticism. Certain premisses were assumed to be unassailable such as divine inspiration. “Scholars” engaged in micro-criticism of the Bible that stopped short of questioning its divine origins (macro-criticism).
Enlightenment thinking in the Age of Reason shone the glaring and unforgiving light of rational scrutiny on the Bible. For the first time, it’s many flaws and imperfections were clearly revealed. Ironically, the telescope and microscope helped the world see “God” through the lens of science. In doing so, God was removed from the natural world and given the reduced role as absentee landlord. Rationalism became revelations most ardent foe.
At this point, reasonable men should have willingly abandoned the archaic beliefs of the ancient men who composed the Bible. Some did, others adamantly refused. Since then there have always remained a faction of religiously misguided Christians who eschew mankind’s greatest faculty — reason. Evangelicals go so far as to debase it as tainted by sin and a tool of the devil used to attack the supernatural and miraculous.
6”The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:6-8)
14The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”(1 Corinthians 2:14)
18Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness” [Job 5:13]; 20and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”[Ps. 94:11](1 Corinthians 3:18,19)
Passages like these are appealed to by evangelicals to denigrate any branch of science or philosophy that claims to supersede God’s divine decrees contained in the Bible. Claiming a superior knowledge that transcends and supplants scientific findings carries potentially devastating repercussions. Evangelicals will often act in direct opposition to scientific determinations and then revel in the security and confidence of following God’s “wisdom.” Such intellectual smugness pervades most of evangelicalism and allows the most unlearned believer to boast a godly intelligence that rivals that of the most educated unbeliever. Furthermore, it renders the Bible as untouchable by sin depraved men.
Not all Christians have a deep emotional bond to their faith but some do, especially evangelicals. They often describe their faith as “relational” and “personal” not religious and creedal. Indeed, evangelicalism’s historical roots lie in this very dichotomy. Christian leaders began to realize cold doctrinal formalism spawned by Deism had all but eliminated emotional fervor. One measured orthodoxy by knowledge about God not love of God. Romanticism would help fuel the evangelical revivals first in England then in America which would inject enthusiasm into a moribund Christian experience. The primacy of emotionalism became the new norm and standard for providing an assurance of faith for the believer.
The role of feeling is so engrained in American evangelicalism it has replaced theological knowledge as the test of faith. You can become a believer knowing virtually nothing about Christianity, while at the same time, you can know all about Jesus and the Bible and still not be a true believer unless you have had a conversion experience which brings assurance of salvation.
The importance of this distinction to our study is for many evangelicals the evaluation of the biblical text is a low priority. A superficial approach is taken whereby scripture is considered authoritative at face value without question. The conviction biblical inerrancy resides in a presumption of its divine authority not derived from extensive study but on an infallible spiritual experience with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit is at the heart of much of evangelicalism.
How can you deny the existence of the God of the Bible who you commune with every day? One who provides joy, peace, strength, guidance and comfort? One who sustains and supports you through life’s struggles and hardships? One who gives you hope and provides your every need?
When it comes down to it, hypothetically an evangelical could agree with the many questions raised through an exhaustive and critical study of the Bible but they cannot deny their “God experience” from where it is derived. Therefore, regardless of what opponents may claim, there is something unique and special about the Bible which is irrefutable.
I feel compelled to address the topic of Christian apologetics, or defending the faith, because as a new believer I was constantly on the defensive with those I tried to evangelize. Over the course of my studies, this field became highly meaningful for me in terms of addressing my own questions. My devotion to God and the Bible forced me to assume nothing no matter how compelling was not reconcilable with inerrancy.
God’s Word is absolutely true always takes precedence over man’s attempts to challenge it.
Christian apologetics is not a search for truth or logical consistency. It is the discipline of deductive reasoning based on unwavering commitment to biblical inerrancy. Everything can somehow be reconciled to the biblical text or rationalized so as not to undermine it, i.e., the divine “mystery” defense. Over the centuries some Christians have given up a lot of theological ground in this regard, e.g., creationism, homosexuality, divorce, miracles, prophecy, gender inequality but all stop at the resurrection of Jesus. This is the one hill Christians refuse to relinquish.
Why believe the unbelievable?
Most Christians are not in it for the sacrifice; they are in it for the reward at the end of the tunnel.
This statement should not surprise anyone. If it were false, the world would be a far better place. If Christians primary goal was to live lives in accordance with biblical standards, issues surrounding social justice, human rights and freedoms would not be perennial problems facing society. So why bother remaining in a faith unless you are willing to follow it implicitly?
Christianity is not just a mental ascent to certain beliefs. It offers the greatest escape from mankind’s deepest most paralyzing fear — death — and replaces it with unmatched hope in eternal bliss. Because most of Christendom believes salvation is guaranteed as long as one remains “generally good” and does not reject Jesus. The by-product of eternal security is complacency. Why give up the things you like if it doesn’t jeopardize your place in heaven?
The world meets Jesus for the first time?
Jesus steps onto the world stage around thirty years of age. We are introduced to him after he travels one hundred kilometers south to Jerusalem. Here he seeks out an “End Times” prophet named John the Baptist. He is preaching about the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God and warning Judeans (Jews) of the coming wrath of God. His message is simple: Repent of your sins and be baptized and you will receive cleansing (forgiveness). Those who submit to his baptism will be assured they will be exempt from God’s judgment be granted entrance to the earthly kingdom.
Several questions are raised by Jesus desire for baptism. What has prompted Jesus to make this journey? From what is he seeking forgiveness? Why is he alone? At thirty years of age, why does he not have a family with him?
Assuming for the moment Jesus was not the sinless son of God but a common Israelite seeking to avoid punishment when God visited the earth in judgment. From what was Jesus seeking forgiveness? He obviously did not think his current state of righteousness was sufficient to gain him entrance into the kingdom. An argument could be made the depth of his gratitude toward God is directly proportional to the degree of his forgiveness. So transformative was his baptism experience one wonders if this was indicative of his leaving behind an unsavory past.
After his baptism Jesus retreats to the wilderness and experiences an epiphany whereby he determines God has specially chosen him to preach the gospel. The synoptics describe this as Jesus having been “led by the spirit to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1f., Mk. 1:12f., Lk. 4:1f.).
The eschatological significance of this legend is key to understanding the context of Jesus ministry. It is to depict in graphic imagery Jesus role as point man in the arrival of God’s kingdom. Jesus refuses to fall to temptation setting the precedent of his victory over demonic forces throughout his ministry and even death.
14″After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news [‘gospel’] of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14,15)
When it comes to deciphering the biblical text in an effort to sort fact from fiction about Jesus, it is no small or easy task. With no extra biblical data to guide our search, we are at the mercy of those deeply invested in the Christian faith. Furthermore, their understanding of Jesus is tainted by a complete lack of objectivity. They are writing to persuade their audience Jesus was resurrected from the dead and ascended to heaven. He now sits at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55) as his divine son and will “soon” return to inaugurate the messianic kingdom on earth as king.
Discovering who Jesus was is like putting together several jigsaw puzzles where all the pieces are mixed in a single box. It is a matter of sorting the man from the myth. Doing so one must use unflinching criticism.
The “other” Jesus
The New Testament is a tale of two Jesuses: the earthy Jesus and the heavenly Christ. The first is historical, the second is mythical.
The challenge for anyone reading the New Testament is to view it as religious propaganda or “advertising” and not an historical record. In order to do this, one must consider two antithetical hypotheses. Either Jesus was the eternal son of God whose mission to save mankind from sin was predetermined in eternity past. Or, he was simply a man who thought himself a prophet anointed and appointed by God but in the end suffered a cruel death as a disillusioned and disappointed false messiah.
Swimming against the swift current of Christian tradition is no easy task. The person of Jesus is deeply engrained in our psyche even if we don’t believe he is the son of God. Few people are willing to reduce him to mortal man and relegate him to the position of religious bigot and pretender to the throne. But this is who Jesus was and not who he or others thought him to be.
When Jesus sends out “The Twelve” he offers these instructions.
5“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Matthew 10:5,6)
A later biblical story about Jesus and a Canaanite woman discloses and reinforces this dark truth about him.
21Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.26He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”27“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”28Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.(Matthew 15:21-28)
Jesus was a racist. He was an Israelite who disparaged Gentiles and looked forward to the day God would execute his righteous judgment upon them. He was fiercely tribalistic as a prophet of Yahweh whose sole focus was the salvation of those Israelites who had wandered away from their God like “lost sheep.” His ministry was to bring them back to the fold by exhorting them to repent of their wicked deeds and live righteous lives in conformity to the ancient law. In doing so they would be assured of deliverance from God’s wrath when the kingdom arrived.
This perspective of Jesus presumes the Apostle Paul introduced a Gentile version of the gospel Jesus would never have endorsed. The resistance of Jesus’ disciples to Gentile inclusion must be attributable to their Master’s own antipathy to non Jews except the proselytized.
I realize labeling Jesus “a racist” seems instinctively wrong and most would reflexively dismiss it without considering the evidence. But even if you accept Paul’s “new” gospel which introduced salvation to pagan Gentiles, it is clear Jesus’ (Jewish) core followers opposed taking the gospel outside the sacred confines of Judaism. The only exception they were willing to make was to forego circumcision as a pre-requisite to participation in the promises something unheard of for converts to Judaism.
The story of Peter converting Cornelius and his household illustrate this position by the Christian leaders of the Jerusalem church. He was a “God fearer” who subscribed to the tenets of Judaism such as the Law, traditions, festivals and Sabbath but was uncircumcised disqualifying him as a “Jew.” Paul would exploit this concession in Psidian Antioch by offering salvation to the entire city. He would justify this by castigating the Jews of the city who took umbrage at his actions.
46″Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 46For this is what the Lord has commanded us:“ ‘I have made you [singular] a light for the Gentiles, that you [singular] may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’[Isaiah 49:6 quoted by Paul] ”48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:46-48)
The above passage is most of the most significant and pivotal records in the New Testament for tracing the initial split in Jewish Christianity to the Gentile branch. It marks the historic moment when an upstart converted Pharisee named Paul, relying solely on a private conversion experience and encounter with the risen Jesus, wrested the gospel from its Jewish parentage. Of primary importance was he did this independent of Christianity’s top leaders and continued despite their opposition.
The next hurdle Paul had to clear was the Council of Jerusalem’s verdict on this unique ministry direction. According to Acts 15, the council endorsed Paul’s work among Gentiles only requiring four conditions none of which included circumcision. Their motivation, however, was likely more about expediency than theological integrity.
Neither time nor space permits but there is evidence financial exigency transcended religious differences. The Jerusalem church continuing Jesus’ practice was attracting the most needy of society like widows, orphans and foreigners. This along with a severe famine was taxing its resources to the limit. It needed an infusion of gifts if it were to meet the demands. Paul’s Gentile converts were more than willing to assume the burden out of gratefulness.
25″Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. 26For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” (Romans 15:25-27, also Galatians 2:9,10)
Either what the New Testament writers claim about Jesus is all true or it is mostly false. Ultimately, it all comes down to his resurrection from the dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, Christianity is a colossal lie. If, on the other hand, he did rise from the dead, the world is bound by this fact and obligated to abide by the consequences of it. There is no middle ground.
Unfortunately, for two thousand years Christians have been promoting the factuality of the resurrection largely unopposed. They have a vested interest in advancing their beliefs especially to their offspring. It has been relatively recent opponents of Christian theism have mounted a spirited rebuttal. Sadly, most Christians have little interest in listening to those who would attack their cherished faith. The trade off is woefully unappealing.
Christianity is primarily fear based and hope fueled. One becomes a Christian to escape eternal damnation and remains a believer to secure heavenly bliss. To surrender the faith is to loose blessing in this life and hope in the one to come.
Jesus’ baptism was transformative. This experience launched him into a deeper communion with his God and set him on a course to preach to his fellow countrymen, the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Imagine for a moment that Jesus was wrong about the imminent arrival of the kingdom. And he was not a true prophet of God but only thought he was based on a profound emotional experience generated by a sense of forgiveness at his baptism. And during his final week on earth while attending Passover, his dreams of being the messianic king of the Jews were dashed when he was crucified. His followers who claimed to have “seen” him resurrected had instead experienced profound mystical encounters which were as affirming as if actually seeing him. Does the New Testament support this theory?
Christians mistakenly suggest there are only two options when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus. Either he legitimately rose from the dead and his followers were eyewitnesses to this historical fact. Or, his followers did not see the risen Jesus but concocted an elaborate hoax which they then perpetrated in others in an attempt to garner supporters. Both are patently false.
Most of how the world views Jesus is based on the post resurrection version of him promoted by Christians. If you deny the miraculous, Jesus was a rabid sectarian Israelite not the cherubic and tender-hearted man depicted in Sunday school curricula. This “other” Jesus has grown entirely out of Paul’s reinvention of Jesus as Savior of Gentiles.
It is difficult for most Christians to appreciate the two thousand year “gap” which has occurred since Paul first introduced his idea of salvation by grace through faith apart from the Law. In Paul’s mind, Gentile inclusion was but a hiccup in the God’s divine program. Jesus would return as the Jewish Messiah, “all Israel would be saved” (Rom. 11:35) and the earthly kingdom would be inaugurated composed of mostly Israelites and those Gentiles who had believed.
The birth of a myth
The resurrection story began with a woman named Mary who Jesus healed of possession by seven demons (Mk. 16:9). Unless one believes in demonic possession, she may have been afflicted with Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka. Multiple Personality Disorder) or a condition making her incapable of differentiating fact from fantasy. To her a spiritual apparition of Jesus may have been as profound as an actual sighting. Therefore, if the resurrection myth began with her as a physical encounter that was really a mystical experience, those she told had no reason to doubt her. But even if it was a spiritual encounter, the empty tomb provided enough “evidence” Jesus had risen from the dead regardless.
For two thousand years, hundreds of millions of Christians have believed in a Jesus they cannot see. We should not be surprised those who had walked with Jesus who believed he was raised from the dead would not be dramatically impacted by this conviction. They lived in a time when miracles and the spirit world were part of their daily experience. Jesus had shown and taught them they were living in the last days when supernatural phenomena was common and expected. Whatever they thought they saw was powerful enough to energize and motivate them to spread the word of Jesus’ resurrection.
Believing is seeing and you see what you want to if you look hard enough.