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Is Jesus Who He Says He Is?

3.8.09



Is Jesus Who He Says He Is?

The oft quoted C.S. Lewis once stated that the identity of Jesus may be found in only three possbilities.  He is either, Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.  In other words, he is who he says he is…..the Lord and Messiah OR he just pulled off the greatest hoax of history by deception and lies OR he is just simply a mad man with grandiose ideas of being deity.  Professor Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill, offers a third option……  “Legend”.  Ehrman is well known as an author and educator who believes the Jesus we traditionally believe in is a legend.  The following material is offered as resource material for those who are honestly questioning and searching for answers.    The scope of this article is limited to simply asking, “Is there evidence to support the idea that Jesus is a historical person?”  I invite you consider this material and check out the links to other sources referenced within.

One source estimates that 350 books were written between 1910-1950 on the identity of Jesus.  With so much having been written, it is no wonder that opinions are diverse as to the true identity of Jesus Christ.  This lesson will present evidence from a variety of sources which affirm that he did indeed live.  The scope of these lessons is not to attempt to prove Jesus is the Son of God, but only to go so far as to establish that believing that he did live is based upon reliable and verifiable records.  The diligent inquirer will likely desire to look further into these matters.  Links to additional resources will be referenced at the end of this lesson.

– Since the mid 1980’s the Jesus Seminar, founded by Robert Funk, has gotten the most press….before that Albert Sweitzer wrote the 1906 Quest of the Historical Jesus.  For an objective look see Jeffrey L. Sheler, Is the Bible True?, 1999.  (At the time of publication, Sheler was the U.S. News & World Report religion writer)

For a more robust examination of these personalities and their views see the following resources. The Real Jesus of History by Joel Stephen Williams    http://doesgodexist.org/Phamplets/TheRealJesusOfHistory/TheRealJesusOfHistory.html

Also: Dr. William Lane Craig’s Rediscovering the Historical Jesus:  Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar     http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/rediscover1.html


What can be learned from historical accounts?

– Various historians, even those of Jewish backgrounds verify the fact that Jesus Christ is indeed a character of history.  The following references are representative but not exhaustive.

Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger was a Roman author and administrator who served as governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor.  He was a nephew of a natural historian known as Pliny the Elder.  In his tenth book of letters dated about 112 AD he speaks of Christianity in the province of Bithynia.  He was responsible to the emperor Trajan to keep him posted on the activities of the Christians.  Pliny dealt personally with the Christians who were turned over to him.  He interrogated them, inquiring if they were believers.  If they answered in the affirmative he asked them two more times, under the threat of death.  If they continued firm in their belief, he ordered them to be executed.  Sometimes the punishment included torture to obtain desired information, as in the case of two female slaves who were deaconesses in the church.  If the person was a Roman citizen, they were sent to the emperor in Rome for trial.

In one of his letters he included the following description of the early Christians and their practices:
They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.  Letters, X: 96, translated  by William Melmoth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), vol. II.

Celsus on Jesus

Celsus lived in during the 2nd century, CE. Origen is refuting him in the 3rd century. Celsus’ writings no longer survive in tact, but we have access to some of his work when Origen quotes passages for the purpose of refutation. The following is one such passage.

Origen, Contra Celsum 1.28
Translation, quoted from Mead.

Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a soldier named Panth&eacutera (i.32)]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god.

Baraitha Bab. Sanhedrin 43a
The translation is informed by both Goldstein:22,109ff and Mead:178f,210f.

There is a tradition (in a Barraitha): They hanged Yeshu on the Sabbath of the Passover[1]. But for forty days before that a herald went in front of him (crying), “Yeshu is to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and seduced Israel and lead them away from God[2]. Anyone who can provide evidence on his behalf should come forward to defend him.” When, however, nothing favorable about him was found, he was hanged on the Sabbath of the Passover[1].
Ulla[3] commented: “Do you think that he belongs among those for whom redeeming evidence is sought? Rather, he was a seducer [of whom] the All-merciful has said: ‘Show them no pity… and do not shield them.’ (Deut 13.8b NRSV)[4] In Yeshu’s case, however, an exception was made because he was close to those who held [political/religious] authority.”

The Talmud

The Jews handed down a large amount of oral tradition from generation to generation.  This material was organized according to subject matter by Rabbi Akiba before his death in 135 A.D.  His work was then revised by his student Rabbi Meir.  The project was completed about 200 A.D.  by Rabbi Judah and is known as the Mishnah.  Ancient commentary on the Mishnah was called the Gemaras.  The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemaras form the Talmud.

In the section indexed as Sanhedrin 43a is this statement:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged.  For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.  Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’  But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!
This quotation was taken from the reading in The Babylonian Talmud, trans. by I Epstein (London: The Soncino Press, 1935), vol. III Sanhedrin 43a, p. 281.


The Gospel Accounts-

It is helpful to keep in mind that the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus as recorded in scripture are dated some years after the earthly life of Jesus.  Mark – approx. A.D. 60    Matthew & Luke approx. A.D. 70-80    John approx. A.D. 90  Even though these are written 30 or more years after the ascension of Jesus, there was evidence and testimony of his existence much earlier.  Consider Luke’s words in Luke 1: 1ff “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account….”

Granted, this testimony comes from the Bible itself, but it is consistent with how histories, records and literature of the time was preserved.  Oral tradition, that is, passing along information by way of unwritten record was done with more diligence than is sometimes given credibility.  Luke, who is a physician, arguably more skilled in analysis of facts and specifics, mentions that he “carefully investigated” his findings.

The fact that there is little outside the Biblical accounts to verify the historicity of Jesus are frustrating to those who search but it is typical of other sources of that period.  Even documentation of Roman history of this same time period is sparse considering the enormous power and expanse of the Roman Empire.

Much more can be said about the sources Luke and other utilized in writing their accounts than we will take time and space to explore.  Other references found within this presentation will offer more details for those who would like to dig deeper.

Other considerations in this lack of contemporary written records of Jesus may seem simplistic but are nevertheless a factor in our discussion.   Keep in mind that at the time Jesus lived:
Literacy was limited  –  Mass printing was not available  –  Oral transmission of information was considered a standard  –  Preservation methods of documents was less than desirable.  All these factors help to normalize the reality that few written records are available.


Other Points to Consider-

The apostle Paul’s writings dated earlier than other NT books  1 Corinthians, for instance is dated approx. A.D. 55.  Note his words in 1 Cor. 15:3-14  “…for what I received, I passed on to you…”

Paul was schooled under Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3)  Paul, no only was a persecutor of the early Christians, he was expertly trained to examine evidence in his training in law.  His teacher, Gamaliel, was a Pharisee and a supremely qualified teacher.  In Acts 5: 34ff there is a narrative where Gamaliel is spoken of as “honored by all the people”.  At that time he addresses the Sanhedrin in regards to charges being lodged against Peter and other apostles.  He mentions Theudas and Judas the Galilean who were leading revolts.  He concludes:  “for if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

This is significant in helping bring into focus that although the Gospel accounts are dated later, Paul’s writings, which are some of the earliest, express as a basis that Jesus is historical, that he is the Son of God and that he was resurrected from the dead.  Paul was no novice in the skill of argumentation and presenting evidence.  He most certainly would not have made arguments for the fact of the resurrection if he knew that his contemporaries would expose it as myth.

An early confessional creed of Christians is found in the words of Paul in 1 Tim. 3:16:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world
taken up in glory.
(RSV)

Concluding thoughts

I want to restate that the purpose of these materials is not to attempt to prove anything.  This is an exercise in presenting evidence that must be examined by anyone who is questioning the historicity of Jesus, his teachings, his life, his death and resurrection.  I invite you to continue to examine additional evidence keeping in mind that this is the most important inquiry you will ever make.

Gary Cleveland


For Additional Materials and continued research

For a link to articles including ancient references to Jesus see Alan Humm’s material at:   http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~humm/Topics/JewishJesus/

Dr. William Lane Craig’s article  “The Evidence For Jesus”
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/rediscover2.html

Recommended Reading

Gary Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus

Jeffrey L. Sheler, Is the Bible True?  (Sheler draws upon years of experience as religion writer of U.S. News and World Report.)  His work is as balanced as any I have seen.

Lee Strobel,  The Case for Christ

Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask

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Living Large

Quotations regarding our economy harvested from the media this week:

“Expect to see more troubled times on Wall Street this year….”

“We foresee more corporate shut downs….expect a bloodbath of closures…”

I’ll let just two of the many dark and pessimistic forecasts suffice.  I’m sure you are just as sick of hearing the bad news of the economy as I am.

It comes in the morning making our first cup of java bitter and acidic.

It comes up with every google and yahoo  headline as we navigate through e-mail and search engines.

The local and national  TV news broadcast updates…..as if we need it….to make our supper take on something of a Passover-esque bitter herb taste.

But I do have to admit, this climate has had some positive effects for me.  I have learned to conserve, to cut back and in some cases to cut out things I can do without.  At this point I would say that I have obtained some good life skills through it all.

But I am not one to leave well enough alone. I have let this “cut-back” thinking creep into my spiritual perspective as well.  Like my tendency to get carried away with Spring cleaning my garage.   I seem to lose my perspective and sensible restraint and  then wind up putting things out at the curb that I later realize I still need.

So the rub here is that I have begun to think God’s plans for me and my ministry are somehow in need of scaling back because of the general context of conserving and a “slow-down economy”.

I’ve had to remind myself that a “slow-down” economy doesn’t equal a “slow-down” God. Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t have my head in the sand that financial issues have no effect on our Kingdom work in this very earthly situation we find ourselves in.  There are things however…..the most important things….which contribute to living LARGE not small.

So I find myself contemplating an oft read passage (Romans 13-15) and see a theme emerge.  It is a theme about living LARGE in a context which screams smallness.  Paul speaks in a time of Empire when people were taxed and oppressed by a Roman machine that drained personal resources dry.  It would have been easy to live in that era with a strategy of looking out for one’s own affairs to the exclusion of thinking of others.  It would have been easy to go conservative….to disengage with relationships which might drain one’s resources even more.  When times are hard there is a tendency to cocoon, to hunker down….which is, of course just going into neutral.  In Kingdom language, this means going backwards.  There is no such things as idling on the King’s highway.

So we move forward.  We live LARGE.  We become the enormous exception in a world of cautious cut-backs and stymied shutdowns.

What does it mean for God’s people to live LARGE?  These following ideas are harvested from Romans 13:8-15:7.

We live large by loving.….even if it costs and we get no return on our investment.   Rom. 13: 8-10

We live large by our attentiveness to living  with an awareness of the competency of God for every age and every circumstance.  Rom. 13: 11-14

We live large by the high premium we place on relationships….with those with whom we agree and those with whom we don’t.  Rom. 14:1-11

We live large by the determination to live a life of godliness….acting in the way God does by building bridges to help one another achieve godliness rather than placing barriers which make it difficult.   Rom.14:12-23

We live large by our expectancy of hope because this is God’s specialty.  Rom. 15: 1-7

The greatest thing about this strategy is that it is not dependent on the world’s economy.   The resources to live LARGE are not in short supply.

So live.  Live LARGE.  Times like these call for us to be obvious, visible and intentional.

Loving

Attentive

Relational

Godly

Expectant

Bigger than life.

To God’s glory.

When Opinion Goes tooooo Far

Thanks to Joe Feldkamp who recently completed our Sunday morning study of the book of Romans.
In our final two classes, Joe led us in a discussion of how easily our well-intentioned opinions can become non-negotiables. A while back I had mentioned to Joe that I had an article in my archives which featured the opinions of some early religionists regarding whether steamboats were of God or of the devil. Back in the 1800’s it was every bit as controversial among some as today’s discussion about stem cell research etc.
Anyway….I finally located the piece, written by John Gipson. John formerly was a minister for the 6th and Izzard church of Christ in Little Rock, AR. I think you will be both amused, amazed and alarmed at how we as humans can let our opinions become so polarized…even when having to do with steamboats.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

According to Victor Hugo, “the first success won by the steamboat was to be christened the Devil boat. To these good fisher folk, formerly Catholics, now Calvinists, always bigots, it seemed to be hell afloat.”

A local preacher treated this question: “Have we the right to make fire and water work together, when God has separated them?” Besides, did not this beast of fire and iron resemble Leviathan? Was not this reconstituting chaos?

In Europe the religious point of view was as follows: fire and water are a divorce. This divorce is ordained by God. One should not put asunder what God has joined together; one must not unite what he has put asunder.

In America, according to Hugo, the argument was different. “In 1807, when Fulton’s first steamboat, commanded by Livingston, provided with Watt’s engine sent from England, and managed besides the ordinary crew, by only two Frenchmen, Andre Michaux and another, when this first steamboat made its first trip from New York to Albany, it chanced to be the seventeenth of August. Thereupon, Methodism took up the word, and in all the chapels the preachers cursed the machine, declaring that seventeen was the total of the ten horns and the seven heads of the beast of the Apocalypse.”

Hugo comments, “In America, the beast of the Apocalypse was invoked against the steamship; and in Europe, the beast of Genesis. Therein lay the whole difference.”

Hugo wasn’t just taking a shot at religion. He pointed out that the wise men had rejected the steamboat as impossible: the preachers, in their turn, rejected it as impious. Science condemned; religion anathematized; and the peasants were frightened.

But the point comes home to me that if we are not careful we may misuse the Bible. Perhaps it would be well for all of us to heed Paul’s words to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)

John Gipson

Thunder Boys

James and John were sons of Zebedee.

Fishermen by trade.

They were used to jockeying for position to get the prime fishing spots before their rivals did.

Their nickname, given by Jesus, seems to indicate they could get down right feisty if they felt threatened. “Boanerges”, he called them. “Sons of thunder”.

These “thunderboys” found some kind of favor with Jesus. He called them to be his disciples. Jesus didn’t just call anyone. He must have seen something special in them.

Not only did Jesus see something in them, they must have seen something special in him.

And it couldn’t have been easy for the thunderboys to leave the fishermen’s life. The smell of the salt water, the feel of the sea breeze at daybreak, the sound of the water as it lapped at the sides of their wooden boat. They wouldn’t give that up for just anyone. But the call of Jesus was irresistible.

So they followed.

It was Mark’s gospel (Mark 10: 35-45) that caught my attention most recently. It’s the occasion where James and John request the honor of being seated next to Jesus when he is glorified.

Just like fishermen to jockey for position ahead of the others.

Fact is, the other disciples got worked up over the situation and it seems like maybe they would kind of liked to have had the place of honor for themselves. James and John just beat them to it.

Being the leader he is, Jesus sees a teachable moment. He straightens them all out by pointing out how wrong-headed they all are about what it means to be intimate with Jesus. It has nothing to do with seating arrangements. He tells them that their perspective was becoming a lot like the rulers of the Gentiles. In the empire, the seating arrangement was a status symbol. If you are seated next to the emperor, you are big stuff.

Jesus gets this straightened out in a hurry. He says, if you want to be somebody in the Kingdom, it comes by being a servant, not by your row, section and seat number.

“You want to be close with me?”, Jesus asks. “Then be a servant.”

“You want to have a lot in common with me?”, he asks. “Then be a servant, because that’s who I’ve been with you all along.”

“Now if you want to live in the empire and live by empire rules, you just go ahead.”

“But if it’s a Kingdom place you are after, be a servant.”

And that day the “thunderboys” learned a lesson they would never forget.

John, as I understand it, lived a long time after. Legend has it that when he was an old man, he had long given up the ways of jockeying for position. He didn’t talk about how close we was to Jesus. He just referred to himself as the disciple who Jesus loved.

And that was enough. That was more than enough.