JESUS: THE ORIGINAL EVIDENCE
The first in a series of three sermons given by Dr. Ralph Blair at the 2012 Preaching Festival held in Ocean Grove, N.J.
Jesus: The Original Evidence
“Who Invented Christianity?” This provocative question popped up on my computer screen. It was an ad for “an all-star lineup [in] scenic Durham, North Carolina [this weekend]. Four of the greatest powerhouse intellectuals in the field of Biblical studies and archaeology in this three-day program filled with the excitement of discovery, new ideas and dynamic discussion.”
The teaser makes false and misleading allegations of conspiracies: “Some of Christianity’s most important doctrines – the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the doctrine of heaven and hell – were not found on the lips of Jesus or his earliest followers. They instead represent later developments … . Where did these doctrines come from, and how did Jesus’ later followers modify his teachings to invent what we think of as Christianity today?”
To assert that the Jesus of the New Testament is not the historical Jesus, but an invented “Christ of faith,” how do they know? They don’t; they assume, they pretend. To know would require trustworthy 1st-century evidence of an alternative Jesus. It doesn’t exist.
Thomas Jefferson bought into the nonsense when he wrote that all we know of Jesus is from “defective fragments … mutilated, misstated and often unintelligible.” So, taking knife to pages, he cut out all that didn’t fit his assumptions on Jesus. Repeatedly, though, the historical, linguistic, literary and archeological research shows that the skeptics’ assumptions, methodologies and conclusions are mistaken.
Yet, with the public’s biblical illiteracy, Christophobia and Fundamentalist fanaticism, people buy into propaganda. All deserve to know better. Here, in our own “scenic” setting this weekend, we’ll endeavor to know better.
It was 1700 years ago this month that Emperor Constantine is alleged to have seen a cross above the setting sun over Rome. He took it to mean that, in this sign of the cross, he’d win the Battle at Milvian Bridge on the Tiber. So, at sunset on that October day in 312, this worshipper of Apollo, Sol Invictus, the “sun invincible,” is said to have turned to God’s Son Incarnate.
The following year, with his Edict of Milan, Constantine granted religious liberty throughout the Roman Empire. Christians were officially freed from the persecution they’d suffered for nearly three centuries. In 325, he called for a unifying, Empire-wide, Christian council at Nicea. There, with the help of the Christian historian and exegete, Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine, the assembled Christians affirmed the basic Christian beliefs that were already 300 years old. Then, in 395 – over half a century after Constantine’s death – Emperor Theodosius declared the, often hapless, hegemony of Christendom.
But, clearly contrary to what’s being pushed in North Carolina as we speak – no Emperor and no Council “invented” Christianity. Christianity goes back to the original reports on Jesus, passed on orally and written down well within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses. It goes back to men and women who, though often doltish during Jesus’ earthly ministry and then disillusioned and in despair when he was crucified, emerged with the joy of living faith in the risen Christ after meeting him alive, three days after his brutal execution and burial. Paul, zealous persecutor of Christ’s followers, also met the risen Christ and, ever after, he went all over the Empire preaching the risen Christ. For this, he was repeatedly beaten, left for dead, imprisoned and executed.
So, contrary to allegations in North Carolina this weekend, mid-1st century testimony affirmed the very highest of Christology for Jesus of Nazareth.
In the first quarter of the 2nd century, Aristides, Athenian philosopher and Christian, defended the Christian faith to Emperor Hadrian. He did this by focusing on historical facts rather than, as was pagan custom, philosophical argument. Aristides explained: “Christians mark the beginning of their religion from Jesus Christ, the Son of God most High. He came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin, took and clad Himself with flesh, and in a daughter of man, there dwelt the Son of God. … He was killed by the Jews, died and was buried. After three days He rose from death. He later ascended into heaven.”
Aristides’ contemporaries provide our earliest secular references to Jesus. One of these is in a letter to Trajan from the younger Pliny. He tells the emperor that Christians sing hymns “to Christ as to a god.” Notes from the Roman historians, Suetonius and Tacitus also reference Christ. According to Tacitus, Christ was “put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all hideous and shameful things from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”
Still, to get back to the earliest and most reliably authentic data for the historical Jesus, to what he said and did and to his earliest impact, we must go to the New Testament texts. Of course, that’s precisely where today’s elite despisers of Christian faith tell us we cannot go.
But these religion professors at secular universities and even in church-related colleges and seminaries, as well as the students they’ve drilled, tend to be deficient in biblical languages, exegesis and the ancient history and culture in which the earliest texts are embedded, while they tend to find their own religious identity in the pride of modern and postmodern skepticism. They are, as you’ll recall Anne Rice was shocked to discover in her research on Jesus, hostile to the New Testament evidence for Jesus. In their smug pose of superiority, they disdain reliance on the Bible.
The so-called “Jesus Seminar” is a popular example of this. The hype it’s been given still fuels suspicions of the Bible in many minds. And, each year around Christmas and Easter, the popular press peddles the latest breathless attack on Christian orthodoxy, basically amounting to nothing more informed than: “Hey, the Bible’s full of stuff people just made up.”
Well, purportedly, the Jesus Seminar discovered proof that what Christians have always believed about Jesus is no longer credible. Seminar members claimed that very little in the New Testament is history. It’s been said that Jesus was but a local illiterate sage, not some sort of god. To believe that he was ever physically alive after he died was said to be totally ludicrous. Any supposed “resurrection” was merely in the minds of those who missed him.
But what the mesmerized media fail to mention – and what many really didn’t want to know – was that the Jesus Seminar’s alleged findings were nothing but its agenda-driven assumptions. The “Seminar” – a fancy frame for mere face validity – made no historical discoveries since it did no historical research. Luke Timothy Johnson, a genuine biblical scholar, voiced the assessment of other genuine scholars when he said: The Jesus Seminar is nothing but a “self-indulgent charade.” Biblical scholar N. T. Wright concurs: “The whole enterprise was flawed from the start.”
The Jesus Seminar founder was Robert Funk, a disgruntled former Fundamentalist turned atheist. He gathered a clique with a grudge – a mediocre group with a couple of minor exceptions who discredited themselves by the association. A filmmaker in the group is doing a movie that says Jesus’ birth resulted from a Roman soldier’s rape of Mary.
The Jesus Seminar’s agenda was to fabricate, in Funk’s founding words, “a new narrative of Jesus.” Talk about invention! His disdain was by design. Confined within his own chronological and culturally arrogant assumptions, Funk decreed: “A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible.” Funk’s arrogance in assuming that 1st century folk had to be dimwits to believe what he rejects is what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Funk is the one who is historically naive.
Projecting his opinion and suppressing all indications and evidence to the contrary, he and his hand-picked – and likewise disgruntled – cohorts report their presuppositions writ large as their conclusions, i.e., Jesus never said or did most of what is presented by the earliest Christians.
Well, how the hell would these skeptics know? They don’t. Retaliation requires no reason in reality. All that’s needed for retaliation is disillusion, frustration, fear and not getting one’s own way.
Against all mid- to late first century evidence, the skeptics don’t believe Jesus had a special relationship with God so they say Jesus didn’t have, or believe he had, a special relationship with God. They don’t believe in miracles, so they say Jesus didn’t do any miracles. They don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, so they say Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. An ex-priest in the Seminar states: “Jesus’ corpse was buried in a shallow grave, dug up by dogs and devoured for dinner.” (John Dominic Crossan) He’s no better at explaining the empty tomb than that kid explained his missing homework!
Jesus Seminar meetings were calculated for sexy PR. After discussion of this or that matter, each member would vote anonymously by casting a red, pink, grey or black bead to signal his own sense of the authenticity. Red meant Jesus said or did it. Black meant Jesus didn’t. Pink and gray meant: maybe yes, maybe no. This postures research, but, of course, it’s not research. Polling a pre-screened stacked-pack of the prejudiced and then pretending to discover historical truth is total nonsense.
In Funk’s book, Jesus as Precursor, he makes the incoherent claim that Jesus was not the “precursor” to Peter, Matthew, Augustine or Luther, et al. Instead, Jesus is a precursor to transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett and similar non-Christians. Funk’s cohort edited Jesus as Precursor. In his fawning Foreword, he assures us that, Funk “does not … tell the reader anything [nor does he] pontificate, explain, orate, prove, or preach.” (Edward Beutner) Well, did he not read the book he edited? Is he in denial? In but one of Funk’s many preachments in the book – this one, for example, on Jesus’ parables – Funk pontificates: “The striking feature of the parables is that in them Jesus does not speak about what his first listeners – and his subsequent listeners – expected and expect him to speak about.” Funk tells us very pointedly: “Jesus does not speak about God in his parables.” But what about Jesus pointedly ending his parable of, say, the forgiven, but unforgiving, servant, with these sober words: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18:35) Funk ignores that. And he goes on, emphatically asserting that, in his parables, Jesus doesn’t speak of God and he “does not speak about himself, he does not proclaim his messiahship.” Funk opines non-stop, preaching, positing, pushing, propagandizing, proselytizing and trying to prove that Jesus doesn’t say or do anything that Funk wouldn’t say or do. Well, whad’ya know: Jesus is a precursor to Funk!
Jesus’ parables are puzzles pointing beyond a simple story to significance he’s signified. Mystery is mediated if ears can hear and make a connection. When someone sidesteps his or her own version of reality to catch the vision of reality that cannot be seen otherwise, Jesus’ parables point to himself and to God. To get but a glimpse, a whiff, a hint of what’s beside or beneath or behind or beyond the surface of a little story is to be taken out of oneself, out of the merely superficial and into the mysteriously supernatural. And such insight is not nailed down by wooden allegory or by sophistry or by skepticism, but by having one’s eyes opened by Truth, Himself.
In contrast to the Jesus Seminar’s shysters, Craig Evans is a Bible scholar of the first rank. So, it’s not surprising that he’s a sharp critic of the Seminar and of all its media-hyped copycats. Evans began as a Hebrew Bible scholar and then became a scholar of the New Testament. He recalls having been surprised early on when, at academic conferences, he found that many of his colleagues in New Testament studies “lacked training in the Semitic background of the New Testament. … I was bumping into New Testament scholars who had studied Greek and knew something of the Greco-Roman world, but had only the feeblest ability with Hebrew and Aramaic (if at all).” He perceives that, “the oddness of much of the work of the Jesus Seminar” and other such publication is due to its members’ deficiency in Hebrew and the specifically Semitic cultural settings of the actual life and times of Jesus. So, they fixate on, for example, Gnostic esoterica from later centuries and a so-called “Jesus” from within that sort of context – a total foreigner to the early 1st-century Aramaic world of the historical Jesus.
With other reputable Bible scholars, Evans concludes that “the evidence is compelling that the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are our best sources for understanding the historical Jesus.” And, as F. F. Bruce observed: “No body of literature has been subjected, over the past two centuries, to more intensive and critical analysis than [these] New Testament writings in general and the four Gospels in particular.”
So why do media repeatedly inundate us with a fabricated “Jesus” from pseudo-sources without a trace of the Semitic? How is it that media gush over so-called “Lost Christianities” of Hellenistic dualism and “Lost Scriptures” that allegedly “Did Not Make it into The New Testament” while ignoring all the evidence of the authentically Jewish origins of Christianity? Why does National Geographic puff a bogus Gospel of Judas, a late cultic celebration of Judas and Cain and men of Sodom bent on rape? Why all the hype for the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas with its fake “Jesus” declaring that, females, too, can go to heaven if only they make themselves males? Why is the agnostic, ex-Fundamentalist Bart Ehrman the go-to guy when media want an on-screen Bible scholar? Why was Dan Brown’s silliness swallowed so easily when articulate scholars of the Bible and church history were readily available to counter it? Let’s not be naïve. Writers and producers of popular media tend to be secularists who are amateurs in dealing with Christian topics. They’d be fired if they were as amateurish in covering sports or medicine or opera. On biblical Christianity, media are illiterate and even hostile – a gullible cabal.
But, secularists aren’t the only ones who misquote or have seriously mistaken expectations of the Bible. Fundamentalism is also at fault. Evangelical scholars note the danger of “a brittle fundamentalism that has caused many who came from such a background to grow out of it and renounce it.” (Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace) Fundamentalist youth were woefully unprepared for even the slightest nuance encountered in graduate courses in critical, analytical biblical research. As an evangelical Bible text critic at Dallas Seminary puts it: “To be frank, the quest for certainty often overshadows the quest for truth in conservative theological circles. And that’s a temptation we need to resist,” he says. But, he goes on, “to our shame, all too often evangelicals have been more concerned to protect our presuppositions than to pursue truth at all costs.” (Wallace) He notes, sadly: “Almost all liberal [Bible] scholars were at one time evangelical.” One of his colleagues quips: “If it weren’t for evangelicals, there’d be no liberals.” (Harold Hoehner) One adds that for those reared in very rigid churches their Fundamentalism “seemed to take priority over Scripture itself.” (Evans) Exposed to unexpected challenges, they’re blindsided, and they’re so ensnared in a system’s hook, line and sinker that they’re sunk. Unable to temper their temperament, they throw away a militant, all-or-nothing Fundamentalism of unwarranted credulity for a militant, all-or-nothing fundamentalism of unwarranted incredulity.
This is the case with Bart Ehrman. He’s leading that symposium in North Carolina this weekend. He teaches at the University of North Carolina. So poorly prepared at the Moody Bible Institute and, evidently, no better prepared at Wheaton College, Ehrman went on to graduate work at Princeton Seminary where, in stumbling over a minor challenge to his misplaced confidence in a Fundamentalist notion of Bible inerrancy, he snapped and sank into cynicism. His friend, Bible scholar Dale Martin at Yale, explains that Ehrman “allowed textual criticism to destroy his faith in scripture because he had an inadequate theology of scripture.”
With ex-Fundamentalists like Funk, Ehrman, Robert Price and others, reared in such religious rigidity, their mentality gets fixed to the foul air and flair of Fundamentalism as such, and they can’t seem to escape to anything but the foul air and flair of a substitute fundamentalism – indeed, to yet another uncompromisingly religious substitute fundamentalism. Their skepticism, then, is just as dogmatic as what was left behind.
The same tragic sequelae are often found to follow youths who’ve been taught a literalistic six 24-hour-day creationism, the universe is not yet more than 10,000 years old or that all non-Christians will be thrown into torture chambers of everlastingly literal fire. When the faulty interpretation falls apart, many find the temptation to discard even the good and reasonable that was linked with it, too hard to resist. It’s sadly the same, too, with the anachronistic smuggling of same-sex orientation and loving same-sex peer partnerships into a few Bible verses – whether by antigay or pro-gay special pleading. In the aftermath of fraud, there’s nothing further to say.
So, as we see, many of the roots of skepticism of Christianity and the Bible are in ignorance, misinformation, poor preparation and reaction formation if not rabid retaliation.
Still, there are solid evangelical scholars of the Bible who, with maturity of faith, common sense and rigorous study are not thrown off course by even a ton of trivial typos in our thousands of ancient biblical manuscripts, the “copies of copies of copies of copies of copies” over which an over-acting Bart Ehrman melodramatically throws up his hands in debates as he rationalizes having thrown out his Christian faith. Yet, even Ehrman, when pressed, admits that virtually all the alleged “discrepancies” he so derides in the debates are but variant spellings, shifted word order, synonyms, a tired copyist’s accidental omission of a word or a line – nothing that interferes with our knowing full well what the original text was.
Here’s a humorous example of textual error made recently. The late Donna Summer, disco diva and devout Christian, made this faux pas and it wasn’t caught when transcribed by POZ magazine. In 1989, Summer wrote to Act-Up, apologizing for what she said she hadn’t said – that God was “punishing gays with aids [sic].” She appealed to love, and quoted in full the passage she said was “her motto in this life.” But she misquoted it and POZ missed her mistake. Here’s her misquote of I Corinthians 13 (from a photocopy of her typed letter): “… and if I have a face that can move mountains ….” Now, since we have plenty of copies of more reliable manuscripts, we do know what Paul’s original wording was, even if, in this case, both Donna Summer and POZ slipped up at their transcribing tables.
Well, unquestionably, Jesus is the most significant person in world history – whether viewed from a naturalistic or a Christian worldview. So, in our teaching sessions this weekend, we’re looking into who Jesus was and is. We’re considering “Jesus: The Original Evidence,” “Jesus: The Ongoing Evidence” and “Jesus: The Evidence in Our Lives.”
But, of course, were it not for Jesus’ resurrection, we’d not be doing any of this. Without his resurrection, there’d be nothing to discuss because, without his resurrection, we’d never have heard of him. In terms of posterity, on the day he died, he died a “nobody” – outside of a small circle that included his immediate family and a few forlorn and fearful followers who’d thought that, somehow, he was going to be God’s promised liberator. But now, all of that hope lay dashed to death by his violent rejection at the hands of the priestly establishment and by his violent execution at the hands of the Roman oppressors still in charge.
But, in God’s hands, what a difference a day makes! There’s more to God’s promise than can be cancelled by any religious or political power.
On Sunday morning, Jesus’ borrowed tomb was found empty. Then, the risen Jesus spoke to Mary there beside the empty tomb. He told her to tell the others. Later that same day, on the Emmaus road, the risen Jesus walked and talked with two of those for whom he’d died and been raised from death. When he broke bread with them, their eyes were opened. They knew him.
Biblical scholar Ben Witherington explains: “It was the experience of seeing the risen Lord that created the inner circle of Jesus.” He notes that these mourners, so disillusioned and distraught after the crucifixion, “pretty much had to start over after Easter.” Moreover, “It was not the Twelve, but rather the wider group of the apostles – the eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus – who became the early leadership structure and spearheaded the spread of the Good News.” Evans agrees, saying: “It was the reality of the resurrection and its impact on those who heard and responded to it in faith that propelled [the Christian faith] forward.” That is so obvious. Yet, we’re all so used to hearing of Jesus that it doesn’t occur to us that – but for his resurrection – we never would have heard of him at all.
What but the resurrection’s shocking reality explains – psychologically, sociologically, theologically, culturally, historically – the fact that a ragtag remnant of the disillusioned disciples of a disgraced teacher, invalidated by religious and political establishments and publicly executed, emerges overnight from utter despair and fear to undaunted dedication and joy in spite of deadly danger they still faced from religious and political powers?
And, Witherington notes: The “earliest Christian leaders were remarkably similar in their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus, the way to salvation, and basic ethics. Beliefs about food laws, circumcision, and Sabbath keeping were a different matter – a matter about which early Christians could and did agree to disagree” in this unprecedented fellowship of Jews and Gentiles. But, of the basics on which all witnesses to the risen Christ agreed, he says, “It is pointless to talk about ‘lost Christianities’ … Indeed, as far as we know, there were no forms of earliest Christianity that did not worship Jesus as crucified and risen Lord.” He explains: “There is neither an evolutionary spiral of ideas about Jesus nor a gap between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, for the very good reason that many of the members of the inner circle had known and certainly remembered what the historical Jesus was like, and they themselves found the worship of Jesus as risen Lord, the praying to him as divine, the naming of him as God or Christ or Logos, to be perfectly natural. Unless one is prepared to say that the very earliest witnesses, some of Jesus’ own companions and family, got it all wrong about a person they knew intimately, it is impossible to drive a wedge between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.”
Strange as it may at first sound to non-believers today, it’s nonetheless true: the original evidence for Jesus is his resurrection.
In the risen Jesus’ commission to his disciples, he’s reported to say: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19) Predictably, the skeptics posit by presupposition, that this statement is simply a late insertion into the text. But, there’s nothing so “simple” about it. This theologically radical nuance within a Jewish base, must be explained – it cannot be explained away.
Jesus’ resurrection is the best explanation for how the Trinitarian doctrine arose within a group of 1st-century Jews – inheritors of the ancient world’s most uncompromisingly monotheistic theology. If anything could give rise to such radical and rapid nuance in centuries-old understanding of Israel’s God, it would be the word of a Jew who’d been crucified, dead and buried and then met, gloriously alive, three days later.
Yet, even before his crucifixion, Jesus spoke of his unique relationship with God as Son of his Father and of his intimate working relationship with God’s Spirit. (Matt 11:27; 16:27; 24:36; 12:28) So, says a biblical scholar, “That Jesus should gather together into summary form his own references … in his final charge to the disciples seems quite natural.” (Robert Mounce) As another scholar concludes: “The Trinitarian tendencies of the early church are most easily explained if they go back to Jesus Himself.” (David Wenham)
Moreover, the skeptics’ problem is even more problematic, since the self-defined “Hebrew of Hebrews, Pharisee and persecutor” of the risen Christ’s followers – Paul – gives us the very earliest written testimony for both the resurrection and Trinitarian theology. (Phil 3:5f)
The gospel text also has this risen, “Trinity”-identifying Jesus referring to his disciples as “my brothers” – further implication of the meaning of Jesus, God incarnate. (Matt 28:10) Emmanuel! – God with us!
And Jesus’ final commission to Jewish disciples introduces the worldwide mission to those the Jews had always looked down on as “wild dogs” – the Gentile nations. Again, what better explains such a radical and rapid revision of a sense of identity and outlook, than the profoundly significant intervening variable of the words of a man who’d been crucified, dead and buried and yet met, gloriously alive, three days later?