My earlier post asked the question did Jesus exist? This post addresses a slightly different question. Did the historical figure Jesus whose existence is attested by secular history resemble the Jesus which is described in the Christian Scriptures?
We could ask this question in several different ways. Is the New Testament historically credible or is it merely a ragged collection of ancient myths and legends? Were the historical accounts of Jesus’ life edited and manipulated by the followers of Jesus Christ to make him look good? Is the theory that Jesus was photoshopped by unscrupulous or enamored devotees credible? This topic could be approached from myriad angles. I’ve chosen four.
The historical record
The historical accounts of the life of Jesus Christ are numerous and extremely well attested. For instance, rather than one gospel with an “official version” of events, there are four gospels, written by four individuals at four different times and from four different perspectives. Nor do these four accounts correlate neatly. They contain the sorts of difficulties we’d expect from four independent accounts rather than the neatly packaged result of an organised propaganda campaign. Finally, there was no official structure or headquarters from which accounts were officially sanctioned. These accounts are published independently but accepted universally.
The sheer earliness of the accounts also argues for their untampered veracity. For instance, Evangelical scholars date the writing of Matthew, Mark, and Luke sometime before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and even the indefensibly late dates of Liberal scholars are being forced earlier and earlier by the growing historical data. Mark was probably written in the AD 50′s and Luke probably in AD 60 or 61. Considering that Jesus died probably in AD 30, this is astoundingly early. It means these accounts were written roughly 20-30 years after the young death and ascension of Jesus the Christ. This means that just about every Jewish person over about 35 would have had some personal recollection of this public figure’s life. It would be analogous to someone writing a bizarrely inaccurate biography of Elvis Presley in our day claiming that he publicly said and did and was all sorts of things he never said and did and was. Half of the people on the street could tell you from personal experience that it wasn’t true. To top it all off, the Apostle John, the closest human friend of Jesus during his time on earth, writes decades later in the AD 80′s, affirming, as an elderly man, the earlier accounts of Jesus’ life and portraying Jesus’ profound humanity with force rather than the progression toward an airbrushed version of Jesus that we’d expect if that was indeed what had been happening. John affirms the settled view of Jesus which had been seen by the nation and much of the world during Jesus’ time on earth and had then been affirmed in the following decades by the acceptance of the earlier gospels.
For a historian to look at the historical documents and conclude that the accounts of Jesus’ life are shrouded in myth and legend would require her first to argue that nothing in history is knowable with any degree of confidence. The evidence surrounding the lives of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Aristotle, Josephus, Genghis Khan, and Xerxes I is vastly inferior from just about every conceivable standard of comparison. Indeed, if the accounts of other historical figures were treated in the same way as that of Jesus, history could not reasonably exist as an academic field.
The ethic of truth
The Christian ethic of truth and Jesus’ claim to be the truth contradict the notion of twisting him into something better than he was. Were Christianity based on an ethic of pragmatism and secretive hierarchy, it might make sense that it is based on the severely embellished tales of well-meaning followers. It is not. Christianity rejects darkness and shuns politically correct accommodations at the expense of truth. Countless believer’s went to their deaths via the lions or the stake precisely because they would not bend the truth—not even a little. They defied kings and popes, magistrates and loved ones for the sake of an uncompromised conscience before God. If the ethic of truth actually came from Jesus, it would be incongruous to twist the truth to make him look better. If the ethic came rather as part of the embellishment, the incongruity is only more stark.
The unbelievability of the alternative
No crime writer in history could have constructed the resurrection story. The intricate consistency and rugged authenticity of the accounts has been the final straw for many a doubter. Quite simply, it is harder to disbelieve the historical account of the resurrection than to believe it.
But the unbelievability of the premise here opposed is only just emerging. To understand the Jewish mindset at this point in history is to recognise the profound unbelievability of the notion that a Jewish sect whose founder ministered almost exclusively to Jews then came to admit not only Samaritan Jews, but Gentile dogs! And that they did this with only minor incidents of class friction, shedding their Jewish identities as necessary to maintain unity and accepting all, both Jew and Gentile, as being no different in Jesus Christ. Still more unbelievable is the notion that such a sect grew explosively both in Israel and among the separatist Jewish expatriates across the Mediterranean world. The notion that these Jewish people, from both the moderate and extreme sides of Jewish society, made such radical changes based on either known embellishments or unquestioned claims is inconsistent with everything we know about the Jewish thinking at this time in history. For a society that stoned blasphemers and adulterers, truth in any realm was no casual matter and the truth about the one YHWH was much less to be taken lightly. There is simply no believable explanation for the stunning sociological shifts in some of Jewish society apart from veracity of the accounts of the Christ we have in Scripture. Especially considering that the distinction between the “some” and the rest remains firmly intact to this day.
But again, this is only the beginning. A constructed or embellished account of Jesus’ life would not be theologically subtle and nuanced as Scripture’s accounts are. Nor would it choose as it’s strongest proponent someone who never met Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. Nor would it portray Jesus as teaching through parables (a device explicitly designed to obscure his message to some). Nor would it portray his teachings as shocking and disturbing as Scripture does. It would not leave Jesus poor and politically powerless. It would not portray him as a servant to his disciples. It would downplay his humiliation. It would avoid detailing the frailty and depravity of his closest followers. It would omit details and specifics that could be verified or disproved. In short, if you were going to try to pump up a mortal and present him as a deity, the Bible is a thorough manual on how not to do it.
The lack of evidence
One of the marks of a conspiracy theory is that when you boil it down to its basis, the evidence for the theory is that there is no evidence. Such evidential tautology is inherently foundational for those who suggest that the accounts of Jesus’ life were embellished beyond recognition. This theory, in other words, amounts to little more than a wild—a very wild—conspiracy theory. Intriguing perhaps, but hardly credible.
This conspiracy theory view of Jesus the Christ is, therefore, analogous to the bogan who resorts to alien assistance in the building of the Egyptian pyramids. It is the retreat of the weak and lazy mind into an explanation which is as intellectually infantile as it is nonsensical and is equal parts laughable and pitiable.
A number of additional angles could be considered and a far more nuanced outline of the opposing views would be beneficial. Nevertheless, this discussion, I believe, exposes the foolishness of the unbelief that seeks to brush Jesus Christ aside based on shallow and shadowy pseudo-intellectualism. Jesus Christ is incontestably an historical figure and the historical record of his life is factual. And because that is true, we know that Jesus Christ is both alive and knowable today.
May God give you joy in Jesus Christ.
Grace to you.