Who is Jesus? You do not need to go too far in a bookstore to see that there are many people asking this very question, or perhaps we should say there are many willing to offer their opinions. There is a quest for the “historical Jesus” which seems to say that we are to expect the “Jesus of faith,” the one we read about in the Bible to be different from the “Jesus of history” the one who actually existed. Is this the case? And why are people expecting the “real” Jesus to be different than the Jesus many of us know and worship?
I must confess to greatly disliking history classes in high school, it just seemed like a lot of names and dates, and “here, learn and remember this.” However, I loved Classical history in university. No longer was it “know this,” but rather, “we are not sure about this, figure it out!” Doing history means working with all the primary sources, so ancient texts, archeological finds and what have you, and trying to figure out how it all fit together, what really happened. Now when one reads ancient texts, one tends to “weed out” the miracle stories in order to appreciate what real stories may be lurking there. We ought not to be surprised then, when some will approach the stories of the Bible in a similar way, weeding out the miraculous. So you can imagine what happens when historians take a look at Jesus. They come up with the so-called “historical Jesus” with not a miracle in sight, especially the resurrection!
But is there not a bias here? If God should come to us, would we not expect miracles? How would we ever know He did if we won’t admit that any report of the miraculous might be accurate? But then it may be said that Christians have a bias. We accept the miracles as reported in the Bible, but not in other ancient writings. I would respond to this criticism by pointing out that we are not blindly accepting one tradition over the others. Rather we weigh the evidence and make a well thought out conclusion as to whether the miraculous in a particular tradition can be reasonably accepted as true or not. For example consider the Greek and Roman pantheons. I have never been given a good reason to accept the miracle stories there as true. Or similarly with the beginnings of Islam or Mormonism. It seems very reasonable to me to not accept the miracle claims of God’s revelation in either of those. And on we could go. But what about Christianity? Is there good reason to accept the miracle claims there? Let us briefly look at three arguments:
One: The existence of the New Testament documents makes more sense when we admit the miraculous. We do well to remember that we are not talking about one book, but many, and they are written by many different authors, at different times, in different genres, and for different purposes. We have, in ‘history speak’, multiple primary sources. How did they come about? Why were the authors intent on writing them, and the readers intent on preserving them? If you take the miraculous out it is difficult to account for the theology, beliefs and community that sprang up and flourished, and the writings that therefore came about. Admit the miraculous and the existence of the New Testament in all its diversity makes great sense. It is easy to account for how the Koran or the Book of Mormon came about under a purely naturalistic non-supernatural way of thinking. But the New Testament itself resists this.
Two: The existence of this passage makes more sense when we admit the miraculous:
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and 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 and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 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, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:3-9 NRSV)
This passage is often dated to about 55AD, so not long enough following the resurrection of Jesus for pure legend to develop. Note that many witnesses are still alive, and so their testimony can still be checked. Note also that James is mentioned and Paul mentions himself also. We hardly hear of James, the half-brother of Jesus in the Gospels, he does not seem to be a disciple, yet he became a key figure in the life of the church. Why? The simplest explanation is best, Jesus appeared alive to him following the crucifixion. Likewise, Paul is such a good Jew and a persecutor of the early Christians, why would he do a complete one-eighty and give his life to serving Jesus? Again the simplest explanation is often the best, a miracle happened, the Risen Jesus appeared to him.
Three: The ‘minimal facts’ of the resurrection of Jesus make more sense when we admit the miraculous.
Quite a number of scholars like to point out the “minimum facts” when dealing with this question. (You can Google Gary Habermas or William Lane Craig for example). The minimum facts are those things that scholars and students of history can agree upon as having actually occurred as per reasonable standards of historical enquiry. So what are the minimum facts that scholars tend to agree upon? Though there are several, the two “biggies” are the empty tomb, and the disciples’ claims to have seen Jesus alive. What we want to look for is the explanation that fits the minimum facts. Here are a few suggestions:
- Perhaps Jesus did not really die, but only appeared to be dead? This is unlikely given the beating Jesus took prior to crucifixion, and the efficiency of the Romans to do crucifixion well. The spear was thrust into the side of Jesus to ensure he was in fact dead. That Jesus’ legs were not broken to speed up death as with the other two crucified men is evidence they were satisfied that he was in fact dead. Also, even if Jesus had survived, he would have appeared so weak that his appearance would not have inspired the kind of faith the disciples went to their deaths with.
- Perhaps the disciples stole the body and then claimed to have seen Jesus alive? First, the guards were set there so that they would not steal the body, but even if there were no guards, it fails to explain the origin and growth of the early church. Ten of the eleven disciples (Judas already dead) were eventually martyred for their faith in Jesus. Why would they die for a lie when they already showed themselves incapable of living for the truth when they fled from Jesus at his arrest? Judas betrayed Jesus before his crucifixion, but none of the disciples betrayed the Easter belief following, which is when you would expect an even greater movement of betrayal. You would expect someone to break ranks under persecution.
- Perhaps the disciples were hallucinating and so did not really see Jesus alive following the crucifixion? However, Paul could point to over five-hundred people who claimed to see Jesus alive, his writing being early enough to be a kind of “check-it-out-if-you-like” suggestion (see 1 Corinthians 15:8). The idea of so many people hallucinating the same thing is quite unreasonable, and even if you could make a case for mass hallucinations (at different times we might add), given the theology and culture of the day we would expect such to be more in line with seeing a “ghost” of Jesus, rather than a Risen Jesus. So already this idea does not commend itself, but even if it did, it does not explain the empty tomb.
- Perhaps Jesus was raised from the dead? This explains the empty tomb, the disciples’ belief they had seen the Risen Jesus, and the origin of the Christian faith very well. It also fits well with the context of religious belief in that time and among those people. That is, belief in the Risen Christ is something that follows on naturally from the Jewish hopes, yet is not something we would have expected anyone to make up. This is the best explanation of all the known facts.
Is the “historical Jesus” in fact the very same “Jesus of faith?” If you don’t believe miracles could happen and you go about searching history with that assumption, then you will not admit it and will need to come up with some very convoluted theories to fits the facts . But if you are open to the possibility of miracles having happened, then the simplest explanation is the best; the Jesus we meet in the pages of the New Testament, and the depths of our hearts, is the historical Jesus.