Many years ago, when I was tucking my eldest daughter into bed, she asked me a question: “Dad, why do we believe in the Resurrection?” I have always taught both my daughters to be strong and to think for themselves, and so I was happy to hear the question, and I answered it as best as I could, giving the historical evidence. At the end of it all, she said, “Oh, good. I was afraid you were going to say that we should believe in it because it was in the Bible.” No chance of that; Dad is not a fideist, nor a fan of circular reasoning. The case for Christianity is a strong one, and can withstand historical scrutiny. Here I would like to set out the case for Christianity in somewhat fuller terms than I did that night so long ago.
We begin with, but do not end with, the records of the New Testament.
The first important thing about the New Testament is that its Gospel records were written within decades of the events they purport to relate. Early tradition (passed along by Eusebius in his Church History 3.39 from the earlier writings of Papias) remembers Mark as the recorder of Peter’s reminiscences, dating the Markan material to the sixth decade of the first century, about 30 years after the original events. Luke, also writing in the mid-first century, says that he consulted many eye-witnesses of the events so that his readers may know the exact truth (Luke 1:1-4). John’s Gospel (dated before 70 A.D. by John A. T. Robinson, and about the eighth decade of the first century by others) claims to have been the work of an eye-witness to the events (e.g. John 19:35, 21:24). This means that all the material was written within about fifty years or so of the death of Jesus.
Let us be clear about one thing at least: historically speaking, fifty years is nothing. I was converted to Christ over fifty years ago, and I can remember the events surrounding it quite clearly. I was married a little less than fifty years ago, and I can accurately recount details of the wedding, as well as many conversations I had with my girl-friend/ fiancée well before that. My memoirs (never to published) contain at least as much historical detail as are found in the Gospels. Compare this with, for example, the stories about the words and life of Muhammad, which tales date from about 250 years afterward. The Gospel material was produced practically instantaneously.
What Renan said about Islam therefore, though inapplicable to that religion, can truly be said about Christian origins: namely, that it was born in the full light of history. The few decades separating the Gospel events from the Gospels themselves do not allow much time for pious embroidery or legend—especially since many eye-witnesses abounded at that time who were hostile to the new faith and would have instantly contradicted the Gospels had they played fast and loose with the events themselves.
The Gospels were also written more or less independently of each other. That is, there is no evidence that the Synoptic evangelists got together to cook something up. If they did, they did a lousy job, for people huddling together in a conspiracy to tell a lie take care to get the fine details of their story straight, and the little divergences between the Gospel stories (such as Christ healing Bartimaeus when leaving Jericho in Matthew and when entering Jericho in Luke) show that they didn’t consult with each other in that way. And John’s Gospel is quite different from the others. (I will not here address the nonsensical notion that the Gospels we presently possess are much different from the ones first written by the Evangelists. Anyone imagining that they are very different is invited to read up on “textual criticism”.)
Yet despite the comparative independence of the works, they all paint more or less the identical picture of Jesus—that of a miracle-worker who made amazing claims for Himself. It is not necessary to suppose that the Gospels are “inspired” or authoritative or are “God’s word”. It is only necessary to view them as early historical documents. Let us grant for the sake of argument (which I am far from actually believing) that only half of the things that the Gospels report Jesus as saying and doing are accurate. The basic picture of Him that emerges is the same as if He had said and did all that they report Him as saying and doing—namely, that of a man who did stupendous miracles and claimed the divine authority of God Himself.
The list of miracles should require no full accounting: He is reported as healing effortlessly, opening blind eyes (including the eyes of someone born blind), unstopping deaf ears, healing leprosy, raising the dead both in private and in public (Luke 8:40f, 7:11f), including raising of one who had been dead four days and had begun to rot (John 11). The miracles are many and impressive—far too many to be just happy rumour. There is far too much reported smoke for there to have been no miraculous fire.
But His claims to divine authority are just as impressive: He claimed the authority of God Himself to forgive sins (Mark 2:1f); He claimed to be the Lord of Sabbath, with authority to declare what was allowed or not allowed on that day (authority which any Jew knew belonged to God alone). He claimed that He would judge everyone on earth on the Last Day on the basis of what they thought of Him and did with His teaching (Matthew 7:21f, Luke 13:25, Matthew 25:31f). He claimed to share God’s exemption from working on the Sabbath; He claimed to be one with the Father, and to be the eternal “I Am” who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (John 5:9f, 10:30, 8:56f). He claimed that if anyone kept His word, he would never see death, and that everyone should honour Him in the same way as they honoured God (John 8:51, 5:23). Even if only half these claims were true, the picture remains the same: the Jew Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be divine. This is not only the conclusion of Christians such as myself or St. Paul; it was also the conclusion of His enemies (John 10:33).
This basic picture of Jesus as one who did extraordinary miracles and who claimed to be God in the flesh thus finds substantiation the works of non-Christians as well as Christians. The Talmud, though of course considerably later than the New Testament, concurs with these facts, though it interprets them quite differently. The Talmud acknowledges that He did exorcisms and miracles, but asserts that He did them by the power of the devil. It acknowledges Jesus claimed to be God, but rejects these claims and says that He was a liar and a deceiver—or, in the words of the Talmud, that Jesus “practised sorcery and led Israel astray”. It thus continues the tradition of Jewish rejection of Jesus that occurred during His ministry (see John 8:48, Mark 3:22).
What then are we to make of these claims? These claims leave one not with a dilemma, but with what has been called a “tri-lemma”—that is, there are only three possible ways of responding to our Lord’s outlandish divine claims: either He was a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.
That is, if Jesus was not God and knew that He was not God, He was lying, pure and simple. And given the quality of His ethical teaching and His insistence on truth and love, the lies were breathtaking in their audacity. Then again, if Jesus was not God and did not know He was not God, then He was a lunatic. A sane Hindu might claim to be one with the divine, but not a sane Jew. Every Jew knew that God was transcendent, glorious, omniscient, and much more besides. Only a completely delusional crazoid would imagine that he or she was God.
Then again still, if Jesus was not a liar or a lunatic, the only alternative left given the basic accuracy of the Gospel picture is that He was who He said He was—the Lord. That would certainly explain the miracles.
The one thing that He cannot have been was a merely good man, a human teacher on par with Socrates, the Buddha, or other ancient teachers of ethics. Such teachers do not go around claiming to be divine. The case for Jesus as a good human teacher can only be made by deleting huge chunks of the Gospels’ portrait on a completely arbitrary basis. This latter process is not history, but anti-history.
Not that it hasn’t been tried. The Nazis tried to make Jesus into a good Aryan by deleting everything from the Gospel portraits that savoured of Judaism—which is to say, practically everything. With this methodology one can make Jesus into anything anyone wants—Jesus the Aryan, Jesus the Communist, Jesus the Zealot, Jesus the Flower Child. But facts are stubborn things, and real historians need reasons to dump the reportage found in historical documents. They cannot dump them just because they are proving inconvenient to the portrait of Jesus they prefer. That is a good way to sell books and perhaps advance one’s academic career, but it is not a good way to do history.
The tri-lemma therefore remains, and the question must be answered: given His divine claims, what are we to make of Jesus? I suggest further that other pieces of evidence are germane to the question. They will be examined in the next blog piece.