Among Christians, it is common to think of a trilemma in regards to the identity of Jesus. In part inspired by C.S. Lewis, the trilemma suggests that there are three options for the identity of Jesus. Jesus was either liar, lunatic or Lord. In other words, Jesus either deliberately set out to deceive people, He was crazy, or He was in fact exactly who He claimed and what the New Testament describe. More recently, a fourth ‘L’ has been added and that is legend. To be honest, until a few years ago, I never encountered the idea that Jesus never existed but was only a legend or a myth. However, a number of authors have written books suggesting such a thing and some of them have become bestsellers. There is obviously a market for such ideas. After the documentary on our book Unmasking the Pagan Christ was aired, I had some secondhand feedback wondering why such a documentary would be made since we all believe in Jesus anyway. The fact is that not everyone does believe that Jesus existed. What is more, most Christians cannot articulate why they believe Jesus was real outside of saying the Bible tells me so. How are we to respond to critics who deny a historical Jesus? We are going to take a look at some questions about the historical Jesus and attempt to equip you with some answers to respond.
I. If Jesus Was So Important, Why Did the Romans Not Take Notice?
The fact is, that the Romans did take notice. It was not the Jews who crucified Jesus, at least not directly, as the right to execute had been taken away from them. It was the Roman governor Pontius Pilate that sentenced Jesus to death. But what is normally meant by this question is: Why was the life of Jesus not chronicled by the Romans? First of all, some Roman historians did take notice. People such as Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and Tacitus mention the early Christians and make brief mention of Christ. They were writing in the early second century and therefore less than a hundred years after Jesus. Why were there no others and nothing earlier? We do not know that there were no others. We do not have every Roman writing. Between the ravages of time and the various destructions of Rome, almost anything could be lost. Even so, we can look back and see the influence of the church and assume that Jesus rates more attention. After all we know that there are two billion Christians in the world today. But let us look at things from a Roman perspective. The book of Acts speaks of a great revival where three thousand were converted. Let us be generous and say there were twenty thousand Christians at the middle of the first century. The population of the Roman Empire was at that time about five million. That means that far less than 1% of the Empire was Christian. There were hundreds of small religions in the Empire at the time and there were even other Jewish messiahs. The Romans actually take pretty good notice of Jesus considering their perspective.
II. What Did First Century Jews Say About Jesus?
Since most of the writers of the New Testament were Jewish Christians, Jews had a lot to say about Jesus. But what most people mean is what about the non-Christian Jews. The problem is that we have very little of what first century Jews said about anything. The climate of the area around Galilee and Jerusalem did not really promote the survival of ancient writings. The main first century writings we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls which were preserved because of the extremely dry weather around the Dead Sea and which were only discovered around sixty years ago. These are from before Jesus so they are little help to us. Some of the rabbinic writings that modern Judaism is built on mention Jesus but they were written down about the third to the sixth century. We are left with only two major Jewish writers of the first century: the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus. Telling the story of Jesus did not fit with Philo’s purpose of writing and so we are left with Josephus. Thankfully, Josephus who was a later contemporary of Paul, makes mention of Jesus in his history. Unfortunately, many people claim that this is a forgery. The passage does look a little too Christian with the Jewish Josephus acknowledging the messiahship and resurrection of Jesus. However, most scholars believe that instead of inventing it, Christians improved on what they thought was an already good testimony about Jesus. At any rate, Josephus does talk about John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus in a way that suggests that he was not dependant on Christians. We have exactly what we would expect from Jewish sources about Jesus.
III. Is Not the New Testament a Faith Document and Not History?
We are left with the New Testament as our main witness to the historical Jesus. But many critics dismiss the New Testament as being unhistorical as it was written to promote faith and not preserve history. They note that the Gospels lack the elements of a modern biography and that they are obviously biased. The problem is that all of our ancient biographies and histories miss the standards of their modern counterparts. Also, all biographies and histories, ancient and modern, have biases. Some just hide it better than others. The fact is that the Gospels have much in common with other ancient histories and biographies and yet we do not doubt the existence of these other ancient figures. The Gospels are actually very good summaries of the life of Jesus, giving us quite a bit of information. But some people will argue that the New Testament lacks value as it was written decades after the life of Jesus. How can we trust it? It is likely that Gospels were written between thirty and sixty years after the death of Jesus. In ancient terms that is not that bad. We would never doubt the existence of Alexander the Great. Yet the earliest written accounts we have of his life are three to four hundred years after his death. Do you see the double standard. And then we have Paul. Although Paul’s letters are after the Gospels in our Bibles, they were written before them. For example, we have 1 Corinthians which has quite a bit of information about Jesus. 1 Corinthians was written in the mid-fifties, about twenty years after the time of Jesus. Not only that, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul quotes an earlier Christian hymn or text that some scholars have dated to about five years after the death of Jesus. Makes the three hundred years of Alexander the Great look very bad. Paul is so confident in his sources that he encourages people to go to Jerusalem and to talk to the eyewitnesses who saw the events. Between the Gospels and Paul, we have not only good reason to believe that Jesus existed, we have good evidence for the nature of His life and ministry.
Conclusion: So What?
So why should we care about any of this? Does it really matter? So what if Jesus may be just an image and not a historical figure? It does matter. We started with a reading of Luke’s introduction to his Gospel. Luke seemed to think it was important to get his facts right. He did not want to just tell a good story, he wanted to tell a true story. He sorted through his sources and he interviewed eyewitnesses to make sure he got things right. Luke was doing all this for a man named Theophilus. That name means God-lover. Although Theophilus was a real person, every lover of God has to take the commitment to the truth just as seriously. The Apostle Paul understood this. In 1 Corinthians 15, he starts off his argument with a strong foundation of historical reliability. He then concludes that if Jesus has not actually risen from the dead, then we are to be pitied for our beliefs. Paul understood that the Gospel is not just an inspiring story to encourage us to be better people. This is not Robin Hood we are talking about. We have real needs for forgiveness and eternal life. That means we need a real Savior that really died for our sins and really rose from the dead. The more we think about these things, the more we can be encouraged in our faith and feel confident that we have a solid sense of hope and not just the mist of religious fiction.