The search for Jesus

[I originally posted this on July 28 of last year, but I wasn’t able to finish the series at that time. Because this is a vital topic, I’m “rebooting” this series to give it the attention it deserves.]

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to lead a discussion group on the search for the historical Jesus. Who was Jesus? What can we truly know about him? How can we sort through all the different claims and controversies that seem to be popping up everywhere? I originally planned to invite everyone in our community to this study, to encourage the active involvement of not only Christian believers but also seekers and skeptics as well. The timing and logistics for such a group haven’t fallen into place, so I’ve decided—for now—to write a series of blog posts on this topic.

Why is this important?
Beyond merely responding to the amazing amount of books and articles that have been produced in the last few years on the quest for the historical Jesus, these questions have profound significance for anyone interested in discovering what is really true. Christianity has always been an historical faith. By that I don’t mean it’s recorded in history, but that it claims as the basis for its existence an historical event. Christians who subscribe to the historic, orthodox Christian faith claim that Jesus lived, taught specific things (including dramatic claims regarding himself), was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. We believe many other things as well, but the basis for everything we believe comes back to an historical Jesus: his life, teachings, death and—most crucially—his resurrection. Christians believe in this resurrection of Jesus as a literal, space/time event. The Christian apostle Paul, writing to other Christian believers, declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God [1 Corinthians 15:14-15].”

Most Christians today would still echo this sentiment. If the claims in the New Testament are true, they change literally everything and have huge implications for the lives of every single person. If the New Testament accounts are not true, then this calls the entire Christian faith into question, at least in its historic, orthodox form. The stakes in resolving these questions are enormous, and this is why the academic study of these issues has garnered so much attention.

So how do we even approach this kind of subject? Can we know anything at all about the historical Jesus? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in the next few posts. But first, a few ground-rules.

Common courtesy
Unfortunately, courtesy isn’t always that common anymore.  I understand this topic may be very emotional for some people, but be warned now: hostile, insulting or vulgar comments will be deleted. I won’t censor the comments as far as real content—you can make any sincere assertions or challenges you like—but do so with respect and grace. Remember, this isn’t a debate, it’s a discussion. The idea isn’t to win an argument, it’s to seek truth, whatever the truth is and wherever the search may take us.

Stay on topic
This is a very broad-ranging area for discussion, and it will be really easy for the comments to begin losing focus. I’m going to try to cover all of the relevant issues (let me know if you think I’m missing something), but I’m going to post on only a single, specific aspect of this study at a time. So I’m asking you guys to keep your comments focused on the specific, limited issue we’re discussing at that time. For example, one of the questions we’ll examine early on is whether we can know that Jesus even existed. This is an important question we need to explore. When I do post on this issue, feel free to fire away with questions and challenges regarding the existence of Jesus. But don’t respond now to this current post with a diatribe on why Jesus couldn’t have existed (or, conversely, why no one should doubt his existence). We haven’t got there yet! I’m going to be extra vigilant at policing the comments because I don’t want our discussions to become derailed by trying to discuss too much at one time. I appreciate your help in this.

Absolute proof?
One misperception we should dispel right way is the idea that I’m trying to prove the Christian claims regarding Jesus are true. Some people demand proof beyond a shadow of a doubt before they’ll believe. Of course, we can’t absolutely prove anything, and this is especially true when we’re dealing with historical claims and evidence. When we’re examining history, what we’re looking for is more of a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ to borrow a legal term. I can’t absolutely prove when and where I was born. But I can present a fairly compelling case that would likely convince anyone willing to believe. We don’t know absolutely that George Washington was the first U.S. president, that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, or that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. But we’re relatively certain these things occurred. In this discussion, we’re not expecting absolute proof (or at least we shouldn’t be); but we are looking to see if the evidence exists, and whether it’s compelling enough to reach a certain conclusion.

Perfect objectivity?
The philosophical term is ‘presuppositions,’ and we all have them. The idea that we can examine a subject and be completely impartial and objective is simply naive.  Each of us has been raised with, or has accumulated, various perceptions and viewpoints, and these presuppositions (what we naturally assume to be true) color how we think about any subject. We need to just be honest about that. But this doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of our presuppositions, that we can’t temporarily set them aside, and even consider the possibility we’re wrong. If we couldn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to change our minds about anything! As one of my favorite sayings puts it: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it. We have the capability to see past our own viewpoints and fairly consider the claims of others. This is what I’m asking all of us to do in this discussion.

Specifically, for you evangelical believers, I’m asking you to reexamine why you believe what you believe. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined faith is not worth holding. Don’t merely refer back to what the Bible says. We need to be willing to explain why we believe the biblical account. It’s healthy for us to sincerely wrestle with these questions.

For you skeptics, I ask you to consider the possibility the New Testament accounts may be true. You don’t have to be convinced—but are you open to the possibility? Many have professed they were examining the claims regarding Christ in a fair, scholarly manner—but ruled out ahead of time any possibility of the supernatural. This isn’t intellectually honest. The conversation below is just an illustration, but these kinds of exchanges are actually not that uncommon:

skeptic: The miracles in the Bible never happened.

believer: How can you be sure?

skeptic: Because we don’t see miracles happening today.

believer: But what about all the reports of miracles happening today in people’s lives?

skeptic: Those reports aren’t valid.

believer: Why not?

skeptic: Because miracles don’t happen!

The unbelieving person can rely on logic that is just as unsound and reasoning that is just as circular as the person who believes the Bible just because the Bible tells them to believe the Bible. Let’s all of us set aside our presumed conclusions, consider the possibility we may be wrong, and see where the evidence leads us.

Accessible, non-technical language
I confess that I enjoy reading dusty tomes on theology and philosophy. But if we were to carry on this discussion using technical philosophical terminology, a lot of people would get headaches trying to follow us and eventually drop out of the discussion. It’s important and right to challenge each other to think more deeply, but that doesn’t mean we have to use twenty-dollar words to do it. C.S. Lewis once said that if we can’t present our viewpoints in a simple, understandable manner, then we probably don’t really understand them ourselves! If you lapse into technical, philosospeak in the comments section, I may respond in kind for clarity. But let’s try to communicate as simply and clearly as we can so everyone can follow the conversation. We’re not here to impress each other, but to dig deeper for the truth.

In accounts recorded in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus is reported to have asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the question we’re seeking to answer. So hang on, ’cause here we go.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus [see above]

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

Our church’s study time is interactive. I often ask for a response from the people, and they can raise their hands and ask questions during the teaching. This past Sunday, the interaction got a little more intense than usual. There was some question as to the interpretation of a particular passage, but the underlying tension seemed to be more about how we view the authority of Scripture. Since this is a vital issue for us as believers, we’re going to explore this topic for the next three weeks.

We begin by making clear our position on the Bible. While we have people attending our church who hold differing viewpoints (whom we love very much), our church is an evangelical Christian church. We believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, and that it is without error. We accept Scripture as the final authority for the Christian faith, for our church life and ministry, and for our individual Christian lives. We measure every idea, tradition and action according to the standard of the Scriptures.

So the question for most of us isn’t whether we believe the Bible. We do. We have faith in the Scriptures as God’s Word to his people. But a question we should explore is: What kind of faith do we have in the Bible?

What kind of faith do you have?
There are two different kinds of faith, and we need to know which kind we have:

objective faith

This kind of faith is focused on the object of our faith—who or what we believe in. It’s faith that is justified because the object of our faith is trustworthy. It’s a surprise to many non-Christians that they use faith all the time. When you go to work every morning, you do this because you have faith in your employer. You believe they’ll keep the business operating and pay you at the appropriate time. If you had good reasons to not believe this, you probably wouldn’t keep going to work. This is objective faith. You go outside of town and climb up into a hollow, metal tube, which is controlled by someone you don’t even see, and expect this contraption to take you hundreds or even thousands of miles over sea and land—and even get you to your destination in time to catch another metal tube! Why do we do this? Because we have a sufficient faith in the airlines to transport us from one point to another.

The Christian faith is an historical faith. It’s based on a real, historical person and event. At the heart of our faith is the person of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. We make this truth claim and put it out there for anyone to examine and either verify or refute. [For more on this, see In search of Jesus.] If someone suggests it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, we’re quick to point out that the actual, literal truth of the resurrection is the basis for our faith. As the apostle Paul said, if Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless, we are still guilty of our sins and we are to be pitied more than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). If the resurrection is not true, then at best we’re just playing church, believing in a myth. The Christian faith is an objective faith; it’s focused on the truth we believe (not on the mere fact we believe something).

subjective faith

Have you ever heard someone say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, just whether you sincerely believe”? This is subjective faith. The emphasis isn’t on the trustworthiness of what we’re placing our faith in. It’s really a faith in faith itself. When a friend or family member patronizingly pats you on the hand and says, “I’m glad your faith works for you,” their understanding of faith is a subjective one. When people speak of a blind leap of faith, they’re referring to this kind of faith.

The problem with subjective faith is clear. If the emphasis is on the faith itself, and if it doesn’t matter if the object of one’s faith is trustworthy or not, then we can just believe any ridiculous thing we want. You want to believe that UFOs are coming to pick you up, or that the rock in your backyard is your god? Go right ahead! As long as you sincerely believe! Subjective faith is irrational faith. People who have this kind of faith aren’t willing for the object of their faith to be examined and verified or refuted. Because the issue for them isn’t whether the object of their faith is trustworthy or not, it’s just that they believe.

What kind of faith do you have in the Bible?
Read the following dialogue and tell me what kind of faith this is:

“Why do you believe the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says it is.”

“But how can you be certain about what it says?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

Do you see how this ends up going round and round in circles? (That’s why it’s called “circular reasoning.”) In this case, the believer isn’t really giving an answer. Their answer is essentially that they believe the Bible because they believe the Bible. It’s a non-answer. What kind of faith is this? This is subjective faith, isn’t it? The focus isn’t really on the trustworthy nature of the Scriptures, but on the individual’s faith. I believe because I believe. Is this the kind of faith we find modeled in Scripture itself? Let’s see:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

Luke 1:1-4

This is the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus. Notice that others had already written Gospels. But Luke still takes the time to investigate everything carefully. Why? Why not simply believe? Why not believe the Gospel accounts just because they’re Gospel accounts? Why not tell his friend to believe what he was taught because that’s what he was taught? No, Luke takes the time to be certain of the truth he believes and that he presents to others. He’s actually so bold as to examine the Gospel accounts and verify whether they are indeed trustworthy. Is this a good thing? Absolutely.

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Acts 17:10-11

“Aha!” someone might be thinking, “See, they searched the Scriptures.” But let’s think about this. Who were these people? They were Jews. So what Scriptures would they have been searching? The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. As Jews, they already accepted the Old Testament as God’s Word. But what was Paul presenting to them? The New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. And did he insist they believe this gospel based on what the New Testament witness said? No, that would be circular reasoning. It would be irrational. He allowed them to examine his message using the truth they already had.

We see something similar in the way Paul addressed Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He begins by relating to their worship of an unknown God, offering to explain this unknown God to them. He speaks of how there is one God who created everything and everyone, and how this God desires for all people to come into relationship with him. Along the way he quotes from their own writings. He ends by telling them of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. But notice he never once expects the people to believe what he’s telling them because “the Bible says.” Everything he says is very biblical, but he doesn’t appeal to the Scriptures as authoritative. Why not? Because these people have no reason yet to accept the Bible as authoritative!

We need to remember the instructions we receive in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.

A big part of our Christian hope is what the Scriptures tell us, and we need to be prepared to explain to people why we can draw this hope from the Bible, why it’s trustworthy. And we need to offer more than just that it’s the Word of God.

A test case
Imagine you’re having a discussion with a Mormon and a Muslim. Each of you has a different faith and you use different books as your highest, most authoritative guides. So you gently and respectfully challenge your friends as to why they believe in the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an. They each say they believe in their Scriptures because they’re the Word of God. Do you accept their claims? Why not? If you disagree with them only because you believe the Bible is the Word of God, you’re at a stalemate, aren’t you? Each of you believes in your holy book simply because you believe in your holy book.

But let’s say you’re familiar with both religions’ books, and you know of serious problems with these books that would cause a person to doubt whether they are, in fact, God’s Word. So you share your concerns with your friends, right? What are you expecting of them? You want them to listen to your challenge of their holy books. But to really listen to you they must be willing to consider the possibility their holy book is not actually the Word of God. They must be so committed to the truth they’re willing to reexamine their beliefs to make sure they’re truly sound.

Are we willing to do the same thing? Are we willing to not only respect another person enough to hear out their challenge of our Scriptures, are we willing to respect the Bible enough to see whether it stands up to the challenge? If not, what are we afraid of? If the Bible is the Word of God, won’t it be able to withstand any challenge?

In the study of logic, there’s a fallacy known as ‘invincible ignorance.’ This is the attitude that “I already have my mind made up, and I’m not going to listen to anything different.” It’s an adult’s way of plugging their ears and yelling so they can’t hear what you’re saying. Some may act like they’re listening politely to you, but eventually you find they’re not willing to truly hear anything different than what they already believe. This is an irrational, subjective faith. It’s not healthy and it’s not the faith the Bible teaches. We must be prepared to put the Bible through the same rigorous tests we require of the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or any other supposed holy book.

But are we now judging Scripture?
We often emphasize that Scripture tells us when we’re right or wrong; we don’t judge when Scripture is right or wrong. And this is true of the Bible in the same way it’s true of other standards on which we rely. I’ve often compared Scripture to a level, or a scale, or the instruments in an airplane. But do we place automatic, blind faith in these standards just because they’re supposed to be reliable? My father introduced me to the idea of a level. My first trust of a level was as much a trust of him as it was the level. But then he demonstrated the level for me, and I saw for myself how it could show whether a surface was truly level or whether it was slightly off. After using it a few times, I trusted it absolutely. But I was convinced of its trustworthiness.

We may think we trust the Bible just because it’s the Bible, but if we think back to when we came to faith in Christ (or came back to faith in Christ), most of us had some reasons why we began to believe the Scriptures. Now we may have had different reasons. Maybe you believed the Bible is the Word of God because your parents told you this, or a pastor or church leader. Maybe you felt God speaking to you through the words of Scripture. Maybe you were like Luke and the Bereans and you examined the claims of the Bible carefully before placing your faith in the Scriptures. But we all had some reason for our initial belief.

Now, do we ever reevaluate our trust of a standard? What if you stepped on a scale and it said you weighed 43 pounds? Would you start celebrating because your diet is going a lot better than you imagined?! Or would you suspect something is wrong with the scale? If you just filled your car with gas and then the indicator still reads empty, do you go back and fill up all over again out of blind faith in the gas gauge?

Fine, but should we ever reevaluate our beliefs? Yes, if want to have confidence in what we believe. Should such an idea scare us? Only if we’re more committed to our beliefs than we are to the truth. Some Christians have the mistaken idea that if we really have faith we’ll never feel doubt. But faith isn’t never having doubt; it’s being convinced despite our doubts. We don’t want to be wishy-washy, constantly switching back and forth between believing and not believing. But there are times when Christians reexamine what they believe—and this is healthy. Facing our doubts strengthens our faith.

When a believer experiences doubts about the truth of the resurrection, we don’t rebuke them for their doubts or blithely dismiss the challenges they’re facing. No, we help them work through the questions and issues; we show where the truth of the resurrection is so sound it can withstand any of these challenges. Many scholars who are now highly effective at studying the historical evidences for the resurrection began as Christians with serious doubts.

What about the Bible? If we read a passage in Scripture that is deeply troubling to us, is it sinful for us to reconsider our belief in Scripture as the inerrant Word of God? No, it’s simply being intellectually honest. Of course, we shouldn’t immediately reject the Bible as infallible just because we’re struggling with a certain passage. But by reevaluating the nature of Scripture, we’re demonstrating that our faith in the Bible is not a blind, irrational faith, but one based on the trustworthiness of the Bible itself. If this trustworthiness is challenged, we must reevaluate it. We are people of faith, not fanatics who arrogantly refuse to consider the possibility we’re wrong. And by reexamining the trustworthiness of Scripture, we gain a stronger, more mature faith in the divine nature of the Bible.

There once was a man who believed he was dead. His doctor had tried everything to convince him that he was actually alive, but to no avail. Finally, he had the man read books all about blood, and how it works in the human body. The man finally conceded the fact that dead people don’t bleed. So the doctor pricked the man with a needle and showed him the blood trickling down his thumb. To which the man exclaimed, “Oh my goodness—dead people do bleed!”

This is invincible ignorance. It’s the irrational faith of a person who will not even consider the possibility that what they believe may not be true. This is the faith of the cultist, not of the Christian. We seek a mature faith in Christ and the Scriptures, not a childish faith of sticking our fingers in our ears and outshouting any opponents.

Should a Christian ever reevaluate their faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God?

If there is absolutely nothing that could cause you to reconsider whether the Bible is the Word of God then you’re probably more committed to your own personal beliefs than you are to what is actually true. As shocking as it might sound, if the Bible isn’t true, we shouldn’t want to believe in it. Our first commitment must be to truth itself. This helps ensure we’re worshiping the true God rather than our own preferred beliefs.

Thankfully, we have very convincing evidence that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, without error and trustworthy as an infallible, authoritative standard for our faith and lives, leading us to the one true God. What is this evidence? Why do we believe the Bible? We’ll begin exploring this next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible [see above]

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?