Everybody wants a piece of Jesus. The majority of the people in the world know the name of Jesus, and at least a third of them – those who call themselves Christian – identify with Jesus personally. Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet and someone who lived a sinless life. Even Jews call Jesus "one of us," a Rabbi who preached love and tolerance. Everybody wants a piece of Jesus because they want Him on their side.
But what Jesus do they want? Do they want the son of God, who came to seek and to save those who are lost, or do they want a great teacher? Do they want the Jesus who died to free them from the bondage of sin and self-centeredness, or do they want a revolutionary figure who will free them from political oppression?
There is no disputing Jesus' popularity. The issue these days isn't whether you believe in Jesus. Now, the question is, which Jesus do you believe in? We will consider the evidence for the biblical Jesus, portrayed as God in human form, who came into our world for one purpose: to make it possible for people alienated from God because of sin to enter into a new relationship with him by putting their faith in Jesus alone for salvation.
Alternate Views of Jesus
The followers of Christ face attacks regarding truth claims of Jesus in contemporary culture. Many voices are competing for the true picture of Jesus. Marianne Williamson, the popular spiritualist and author of A Return to Love insisted there is no single truth except for divine light each of us. "We're all going to get to heaven in the end," she said. Williamson teaches that the resurrection of Jesus is a symbol that we are all sons of God need to be awakened.
Some of these voices like Williamsons are coming from contemporary culture. Far from being passing fads, these perspectives are enormously popular, capturing the imaginations of tens of millions of spiritual seekers. For example, The Da Vinci Code, has become one of the fastest selling novel in history. The author, Dan Brown proposes that Jesus didn't die at all, but got married and raised a family. That this book is a work of fiction is lost on many people. Many have bought into the allegedly hidden truths Brown says have been kept from the public.
Other voices are coming from the field of academics, in particular a group of scholars writing and lecturing under the umbrella of the theological think tank called the Jesus Seminar. Allegedly, the purpose of the seminar is to recover the authentic Jesus by peeling back the layers of supernatural myths and legends that are presented in the Gospels and believed by Christians today.
And just who is this authentic Jesus? Here is a sampling of quotes from a few of the Jesus seminar participants:
- Jesus was a charismatic Jewish peasant "spirit person" like Buddha, combining qualities of sage and profit, who sought to reform Jewish society and was killed for it (Marcus Borg).
- Jesus was a peasant philosopher poet like the Cynics wandering around Galilee and preaching freedom and love – a kind of first century Jewish hippie (John Dominic Crossan).
- The Gospel of Mark created a myth based on the belief of the "Jesus movement," which saw him as a Jewish reformer and the "Christ cult," which reinvented Jesus as a divine being (Burton Mack).
The Jesus Seminar even publish its own version of the Gospels called The Five Gospels, given that title because it includes the gospel of Thomas along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But as it turns out, less than 20% of the sayings traditionally attributed to Jesus are in red. That's because Jesus Seminar scholars have determined that the other 80% aren't authentic.
So what was the alternate portrait of Jesus look like? Here are the main features:
- Jesus was a kind of itinerant social critic and Jewish philosopher.
- He never claimed to be the son of God.
- He never claimed to forgive sins.
- He never claimed to be the only way to God.
- His crucifixion was an accident.
- His corpse was thrown into a shallow grave, where it rotted away or was eaten by wild animals.
A Useless Faith
If you are a Christian who believes the truth claims of the Bible, including the things the Bible says about Jesus and the things Jesus said, this alternate portrait probably seems pretty bizarre. But if you are unfamiliar with the Bible and aren't sure about Jesus, "the Jesus seminar" Jesus probably doesn't seem too far-fetched. The issue, of course, isn't what seems to be true about Jesus, but what is actually true. In other words, what matters is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
If you don't have confidence that the things the Bible says about Jesus are true, your faith is going to be in question. In fact if Jesus was not resurrected, as the members of the Jesus seminar and other contemporary voices are saying, then your faith is absolutely useless and your belief is pitiful. That's not us talking. The apostle Paul said it many years ago (1 Corinthians 15:17-19) !
The Jesus We Want
Pat Morley made a statement that has to do with the way people-Christians and non-Christians alike-think about God: "There is the God we want, and there is the God who is, and they are not the same God."
We can just as easily apply that statement to Jesus, who claim to be God. There is Jesus our culture wants, and there is the Jesus who is, and they are not the same. The alternate views of Jesus proposed by the Jesus seminar are all about the Jesus we want. Let's look at three reasons why this is the case:
1. The Jesus our culture wants is natural. The first thing the alternate views of Jesus do is to strip him of his supernatural power. Remember the world of naturalism? This is the view that the universe and everything in it – every person and event – have a natural cause. There are no supernatural people or events. Miracles can't happen. In this worldview, things like God coming to earth in human form, the virgin birth, and the resurrection aren't possible. According to the Jesus seminar, the historical Jesus must be by definition a non-supernatural figure.
The people who take this alternate view of Jesus have no proof for their claim. It's just assumed because they don't want a supernatural Jesus. Why? Because a supernatural Jesus is God in human form. A supernatural Jesus can forgive sins. A supernatural Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. Humankind is not the center of the universe or the highest form of life. People are sinners in need of salvation in Jesus is the Savior they need.
The problem with the naturalistic assumption about Jesus – and we call it that because no proof is offered – is that it is not based on evidence but on desire. It represents the Jesus our naturalistic culture wants – a Jesus who doesn't demand that people turn from their sin towards God – not the Jesus who is.
2. The Jesus our culture wants lives in everyone. The second characteristic of the alternate Jesus is that he lives in every person as a kind of divine light. Clearly this assumption comes from the Gospel of Thomas, a text favored by the Jesus seminar in general and by the Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels in particular. In her book Beyond Belief, she offers this saying from Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you." Pagels makes this a conclusion:
The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenge us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and, with a shock of recognition, I realize that this perspective seems to be self evident.
This form of Christianity is not based on belief in what is true, but on personal preference. It is a view that presents, words of the New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III, "a reconfigured form of Christ – reconfigured as self actualization."
Pagels and the members of the Jesus seminar view the gospel of Thomas as their primary source for what we know about Jesus, but the vast majority of scholars believe this gospel wasn't written until the middle of the 2nd century( which means it wasn't written by Thomas at all). And rather than giving a true portrait of Jesus, it reflects the philosophy of the 2nd century Gnosticism, a philosophy that teaches that salvation comes through secret knowledge of the spiritual realm.
3. The Jesus our culture wants is politically correct. When you put religious pluralism together with political correctness, you end up with the view that all religious views about the nature of God and Jesus are valid – except, of course, for the view that Jesus is the only way to God! William Lane Craig writes:
If you insist on being politically correct, then somehow you got to get Jesus out of the way. For his radical, personal claims to be the unique son of God, the absolute revelation of God the father, the sole mediator between God and man, are frankly embarrassing and offensive to the politically correct mindset.
The problem with the politically correct picture of Jesus is that it doesn't correspond with reality (remember, by definition truth corresponds with reality). Rather than shaping a portrait of Jesus based on who he is, many have shaped the portrait of Jesus based on what they want.
The Jesus Who Is
To get to the heart of the historical Jesus, we need to find out what his contemporaries thought and wrote about him. These eyewitness accounts tell us a great deal about who Jesus was and what he did.
The people who knew Jesus best were his disciples, hand-picked by Jesus. All but one of these twelve ordinary men followed Jesus wholeheartedly. For the next three years – up to his ascension into heaven – Jesus taught this ragtag group, and gradually they learn. More importantly, they came to believe in him as their Savior.
Two of Jesus disciples, Matthew and John were also biographers of Jesus. There were four biographers and all and all were trustworthy eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus.
If anyone had reason to discredit Jesus, it was the people who opposed him, such as the religious leaders. If there had been any doubt that Jesus spoke with authority, or that his followers were exaggerating his claims, the religious leaders would've jumped on every opportunity to expose Jesus is a fraud. But that never happened. No one ever contradicted the claims and teachings of Jesus. No one ever successfully argued with Jesus and proved him wrong.
Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived and wrote the first century. His writings, which were respected by scholars as trustworthy, mentioned Jesus several times. Other ancient writers – including Cornelius Tacitus and Plinius Secundus – made references to Christ, Christians and historical events mentioned in the Bible for. For example, the first century historian Phlegon wrote about the darkness that came upon the earth at the time of Christ's crucifixion.
The Criteria of Authority
How do we know that Jesus said and did things he did? Can you really trust the testimony of his biographers? Here are three criteria posed by scholars to validate the eyewitness accounts the gospel writers:
1. The Criterion of Embarrassment. If a gospel writer recorded something embarrassing about Jesus especially something Jesus said that it's more likely to have stemmed from the historical Jesus. Jesus did and said plenty of things that embarrassed his followers. He mixed with prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, something no self-respecting rabbi would ever do. He was baptized, which was something associated with purification and cleansing. Why would Jesus need to be purified? And then there are all those hard sayings of Jesus that surely embarrassed his followers. For example, he told them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53). And Jesus told men closest to him that they had to hate their families in order to be his disciples (Luke 14:26). The fact that the Gospel writers left all the stuff gives credence to their truth.
2. The Criterion of Dissimilarity. If Jesus uses words and phrases that nobody else uses, we would expect the content to be true. For example, Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. Even though Jesus used this phrase deliberately, nobody else used it in his day. Another is Jesus own use of "the Son of Man," his favorite self-descriptive term. The early church didn't use this title to elude to Jesus. The fact that he uses it showed that he was using it deliberately, and it showed that these phrases really go back to Jesus.
3. The Criterion of Multiple Attestations. Gospel scholars uses criterion to show the truth of Jesus' statements. If independent testimonies agree on what he said, it lends credibility. Simply put, the more independent witnesses that report an event or saying, the better.
- Many voices are competing for the true picture of Jesus. These perspectives are enormously popular capturing the imaginations of tens of millions of spiritual seekers.
- One of the more popular voices is the Jesus seminar. The purpose of the seminar is to recover the authentic Jesus by peeling back the layers of supernatural myths and legends that are presented in the Gospels and believed by Christians today.
- These alternate views of Jesus present him as a natural, living in everyone as a kind of "divine light," and they are politically correct. However, these views do not correspond with the reality of who Jesus is.
- The evidence that Jesus is the person the Bible portrays him to be is corroborated by his disciples, by the people who oppose him, and by historians. We can trust these eyewitnesses because of three criteria: embarrassment, dissimilarity, and multiple attestations.
Reflection and Discussion
- Read 1 Corinthians 15:17–19 again. Why should this bold statement by Paul give you confidence that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened? Why should this statement give you hope for your own future in Christ?
- Why do you think it is so appealing for people to accept Jesus as a "divine light" present in all people rather than the 2nd person in the Trinity? What is it about the Jesus of the Bible that offends people and prompts them to develop these alternate portraits of him?
- Of the 3 groups of eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus – the disciples, the opposition, and the historians, which one carries the most weight for you? Why is the cumulative effect of all 3 groups more credible than anyone groups standing on its own in terms of giving us an accurate portrayal of Jesus?
Bickel, Bruce and Stan Jantz. Evidence for Faith 101:Understanding Apologetics in Plain Language. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008, 140-148