The Case for Christ – Reasons to Believe in the Reality of Christ

Dr. Ray Bohlin summarizes the evidence found by Lee Strobel when researching the question: Is Jesus Christ really who the Bible says He is? He shows that we have strong evidence on every front that backs up our belief in Jesus as the Son of God. This important apologetic argument helps us understand the enduring value of Christianity.

Sometimes the Evidence Doesn’t Stack Up

Skeptics around the world claim that Jesus either never said He was God or He never exemplified the activities and mindset of God. Either way they rather triumphantly proclaim that Jesus was just a man. Some will go so far as to suggest that He was a very moral and special man, but a man nonetheless. Well, Lee Strobel was just such a skeptic. For Strobel, there was far too much evidence against the idea of God, let alone the possibility that God became a man. God was just mythology, superstition, or wishful thinking.

As a graduate of Yale Law School, an investigative reporter, and eventual legal affairs editor for the Chicago Tribune, Strobel was familiar with the weighing of evidence. He was familiar with plenty of university professors who knew Jesus as an iconoclastic Jew, a revolutionary, or a sage, but not God. He had read just enough philosophy and history to support his skepticism.

As Strobel himself says,

As far as I was concerned, the case was closed. There was enough proof for me to rest easy with the conclusion that the divinity of Jesus was nothing more than the fanciful invention of superstitious people. Or so I thought.{1}

That last hesitation came as a result of his wife’s conversion. After the predictable rolling of the eyes and fears of his wife being the victim of a bait and switch scam, he noticed some very positive changes he found attractive and intriguing. The reporter in him eventually wanted to get to the bottom of this and he launched his own personal investigation. Setting aside as best he could his own personal interest and prejudices, he began reading and studying, interviewing experts, examining archaeology and the Bible.

Over time the evidence began to point to the previously unthinkable. Strobel’s book The Case for Christ is a revisiting of his earlier quest. He interviews a host of experts along three lines of evidence. In the first section Strobel investigates what he calls the record. What did the eyewitnesses say they saw and heard? Can they be trusted? Can the gospel accounts be trusted? What about evidence from outside the Bible? Does archaeology help or hurt the case for Christ? Strobel puts tough questions to his experts and their answers will both surprise and exhilarate.

In the third section of the book, Strobel investigates the resurrection. He examines the medical evidence, explores the implications of the empty tomb, the reliability of the appearances after the resurrection, and the wide-ranging circumstantial evidence.

However, here we’ll focus on the middle section of the book, the analysis of Jesus Himself. Did Jesus really think He was God? Was He crazy? Did He act like He was God? And did He truly match the picture painted in the Old Testament of the Messiah?

Was Jesus Really Convinced that He Was the Son of God?

The psychological profiler is a new weapon in the arsenal of criminal investigators. They understand that behavior reflects personality. These highly trained professionals examine the actions and words of criminals and from these clues construct a psychological and sometimes historical profile of the likely perpetrator.

These same skills can be applied to our question of whether Jesus actually thought He was God. We can learn a great deal about what Jesus thought of Himself, not just from what He said, but what He did and how He did it.

Ben Witherington was educated at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M. Div.) and the University of Durham in England (Th. D.). He has taught at several universities and seminaries and authored numerous books and articles about the person of Jesus.

Strobel began his interview by stating that Jesus wasn’t very forthcoming about His identity in public, even mysterious. He didn’t come right out and say He was the Son of God or the Messiah. Couldn’t it be that Jesus simply didn’t see Himself that way?

Witherington points out that Jesus needed to operate in the context of His day. To boldly state that He was God would have at first confused and then maddened the Jews of His day. Blasphemy was not treated lightly. Therefore He was very careful, especially at first, of what He said publicly.

There are other clues to Jesus’ self-identity as God. He chose twelve disciples, as God chose the twelve nations of Israel. He called John the Baptist the greatest man on earth; yet He went on to do even greater things in His miracles. He told the Pharisees, in contradiction to much of the Old Testament law, that what defiled a man was what came out of his mouth, not what he put in it. “We have to ask, what kind of person thinks he has the authority to set aside the divinely inspired Jewish Scriptures and supplant them with his own teaching.”{2} Even the Romans labeled Him King of the Jews. Either Jesus actually said that or someone thought He did.

Since Jesus’ followers called Him Rabboni or Rabbi, it seems they just thought of Him as a teacher and nothing more. But Witherington reminds us that Jesus actually taught in a radical new way. In Judaism, the authority of two or more witnesses was required for the proclamation of truth. But Jesus frequently said, “Amen I say to you,” or in modern English, “I swear in advance to the truthfulness of what I am about to say.” Jesus attested to the truth of what He was saying on His own authority. This was truly revolutionary.

The evidence that Jesus believed that He stood in the very place of God is absolutely convincing. Maybe He was just crazy. We’ll explore that question next.

Was Jesus Crazy When He Claimed to be the Son of God?

There’s considerable doubt in the general public about the usefulness of psychological testimony in the courtroom. It seems that you can find some psychologist to testify to just about anything concerning someone’s state of mind at the time a crime was committed. But while abuses can occur, most people recognize that a trained and experienced psychologist can offer helpful insights into a person’s state of mind while examining his words and actions.

In our investigation of Jesus, if He really believed He was God, can we determine if He was crazy or insane? You can visit just about any mental health facility and be introduced to people who think they are Julius Caesar or Napoleon or even Jesus Christ. Could Jesus have been deluded?

Not so, according to Gary Collins, a psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology from Purdue and the author of numerous books and articles in popular magazines and professional journals. Disturbed individuals often show signs of depression or anxiety or explosive anger. But Jesus never displays inappropriate emotions.

He does get angry, but this is clearly appropriate—in the temple, for instance, when He saw the misuse of the temple courtyard and that the moneychangers were taking advantage of the poor. He didn’t just get ticked off because someone was annoying Him. In fact, Jesus seems at His most composed when being challenged. In a beautiful passage, Collins describes Jesus as he would an old friend:

He was loving but didn’t let his compassion immobilize him; he didn’t have a bloated ego, even though he was often surrounded by adoring crowds; he maintained balance despite an often demanding lifestyle; he always knew what he was doing and where he was going; he cared deeply about people, including women and children, who weren’t seen as being important back then; he was able to accept people while not merely winking at their sin; he responded to individuals based on where they were at and what they uniquely needed. All in all I just don’t see signs that Jesus was suffering from any known mental illness.{3}

OK, so maybe Jesus wasn’t mentally disturbed, but maybe He used psychological tricks to perform His miracles. Many illnesses are psychosomatic, so maybe His healings were just by the power of suggestion. Collins readily admits that maybe some of Jesus’ miracles were of this very type, but they were still healed. And some of His miracles just can’t fit this description. Jesus healed leprosy and people blind since birth, both of which would be difficult to pull off as a psychological trick. His miracles over nature also can’t be explained psychologically, and raising Lazarus from the dead after being in the tomb for a few days is not the stuff of trickery. No, Jesus wasn’t crazy.

Did Jesus Fulfill the Attributes of God?

Modern forensics utilizes artists who are able to sketch the appearance of a criminal based on the recollections of the victims. This is an important tool to be able to alert the public as to the appearance of a usually violent offender. In Lee Strobel’s investigation of the evidence for Jesus, he uses the Old Testament as a sketch of what God is supposed to be like. If Jesus claims to be God, then what we see of Him in the Gospels should mirror the picture of God in the Old Testament.

For this purpose, Strobel interviewed Dr. D. A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Carson can read a dozen languages and has authored or edited over forty books about Jesus and the New Testament.

At the start of the interview, Strobel asks Carson, “What did Jesus say or do that convinces you that Jesus is God?” The answer was a little surprising. Jesus forgave sins.

We all see ourselves as having the power and authority to forgive someone who has wronged us. Jesus forgave people for things they did that didn’t involve Jesus at all. This was startling for that time and even today. Only God can truly forgive sins, and Jesus specifically does so on a number of occasions.{4}

In addition, Jesus considered himself to be without sin. Historically, we consider people to be holy who are fully conscious of their own failures and are fighting them honestly in the power of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus gave no such impression. In that wonderful chapter, John 8, Jesus asks if anyone can convict Him of sin (John 8:46). The question itself is startling, but no one answers. Sinlessness is another attribute of deity.

This chapter is a wonderful interview with Carson, covering other questions, such as: how could Jesus be God and actually be born; or say that the Father was greater than He; or not speak out strongly against the slavery of the Jewish and Roman culture; or believe in and send people to Hell? I’ll leave you to explore those fascinating questions on your own in the book.

Strobel concludes that the Bible declares several attributes for God and applies them to Jesus. John 16:30 records one of the disciples saying, “Now we can see that you know all things.” Jesus says in Matthew 28:20, “Surely I am with you even unto the end of the age.” And in Matthew 18:20 He says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” All authority was given Him (Matthew 28:18) and Hebrews tells us that He is the same yesterday and today. So Jesus is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and immutable. In John 14:7, Jesus says, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.”

Did Jesus—and Jesus Alone—Match the Identity of the Messiah?

So far in Strobel’s interviews with scholars we have affirmed that Jesus did claim to be God, He wasn’t insane or emotionally disturbed, and He did things that only God would do. Now we want to review Strobel’s interview with Louis Lapides, a Jewish believer as to whether Jesus actually fit the Old Testament picture of what the Messiah would be like.

One of the important pieces of evidence that convinced Lapides that Jesus was the long-looked-for Messiah was the fulfillment of prophecy. There are over forty prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, and Jesus fulfilled every one. Some say this is just coincidence. But, the odds of just one person fulfilling even five of these prophesies is less than one chance in one hundred million billion—a number millions of times greater than the number of all people who have ever lived on earth.{5}

But maybe this isn’t all it seems. Objections to the correlation of Jesus’ life to the prophecies of the Messiah fall into four categories. The first is the coincidence argument, which we just dispelled. Perhaps the most frequently heard argument is that the gospel writers fabricated the details to make it appear that Jesus was the Messiah. But the gospels were written close enough in time to the actual events that, if false, critics could have exposed the details. Certainly this is true of those in the Jewish community who had every reason to squash this new religion before it got started.

Third, there is the suggestion that Jesus intentionally fulfilled these many prophecies so as to make Himself appear as the Messiah. That’s conceivable for some of the prophecies, such as Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, but for others it’s impossible. How could Jesus arrange for his ancestry, or place of birth, or the method of execution, or that soldiers would gamble for his clothing? The list goes on.

Fourth, perhaps Christians have just ripped these so-called prophecies out of context and have misinterpreted them. When asked, Lapides sighed and replied:

You know, I go through books that people write to try to tear down what we believe. That’s not fun to do, but I spend the time to look at each objection individually and then to research the context and the wording in the original language. And every single time, the prophecies have stood up and shown themselves to be true.{6}

What I found most intriguing about the interviews was the combination of academic integrity on the part of these scholars alongside a very evident love for the One of whom they were speaking. For these scholars, finding the historical Jesus was not just an academic exercise, but also a life-changing personal encounter with Jesus. Perhaps it can be for you too.

Notes

1. Lee Strobel, 1998, The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids Michigan/Zondervan Publishing House, p. 13.
2. Ben Witherington, quoted in The Case for Christ, p. 135.
3. Gary Collins, quoted in The Case for Christ, p. 147.
4. Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. 157-158.
5. Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. 183.
6. Louis Lapides, quoted in The Case for Christ, p. 185.

© 2001 Probe Ministries International


Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources

Dr. Michael Gleghorn examines evidence from ancient non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus, demonstrating that such sources help confirm the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Evidence from Tacitus

Although there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is an accurate and trustworthy historical document, many people are still reluctant to believe what it says unless there is also some independent, non-biblical testimony that corroborates its statements. In the introduction to one of his books, F.F. Bruce tells about a Christian correspondent who was told by an agnostic friend that “apart from obscure references in Josephus and the like,” there was no historical evidence for the life of Jesus outside the Bible.{1} This, he wrote to Bruce, had caused him “great concern and some little upset in [his] spiritual life.”{2} He concludes his letter by asking, “Is such collateral proof available, and if not, are there reasons for the lack of it?”{3} The answer to this question is, “Yes, such collateral proof is available,” and we will be looking at some of it in this article.

Let’s begin our inquiry with a passage that historian Edwin Yamauchi calls “probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament.”{4} Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:

Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . . .{5}

What all can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have “suffered the extreme penalty,” obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.

But what are we to make of Tacitus’ rather enigmatic statement that Christ’s death briefly checked “a most mischievous superstition,” which subsequently arose not only in Judaea, but also in Rome? One historian suggests that Tacitus is here “bearing indirect . . . testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave.”{6} While this interpretation is admittedly speculative, it does help explain the otherwise bizarre occurrence of a rapidly growing religion based on the worship of a man who had been crucified as a criminal.{7} How else might one explain that?

Evidence from Pliny the Younger

Another important source of evidence about Jesus and early Christianity can be found in the letters of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he asks Trajan’s advice about the appropriate way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians.{8} Pliny says that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity.{9}

At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these Christians:

They 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.{10}

This passage provides us with a number of interesting insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians. First, we see that Christians regularly met on a certain fixed day for worship. Second, their worship was directed to Christ, demonstrating that they firmly believed in His divinity. Furthermore, one scholar interprets Pliny’s statement that hymns were sung to Christ, as to a god, as a reference to the rather distinctive fact that, “unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth.”{11} If this interpretation is correct, Pliny understood that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God! Of course, this agrees perfectly with the New Testament doctrine that Jesus was both God and man.

Not only does Pliny’s letter help us understand what early Christians believed about Jesus’ person, it also reveals the high esteem to which they held His teachings. For instance, Pliny notes that Christians bound themselves by a solemn oath not to violate various moral standards, which find their source in the ethical teachings of Jesus. In addition, Pliny’s reference to the Christian custom of sharing a common meal likely alludes to their observance of communion and the “love feast.”{12} This interpretation helps explain the Christian claim that the meal was merely food of an ordinary and innocent kind. They were attempting to counter the charge, sometimes made by non-Christians, of practicing “ritual cannibalism.”{13} The Christians of that day humbly repudiated such slanderous attacks on Jesus’ teachings. We must sometimes do the same today.

Evidence from Josephus

Perhaps the most remarkable reference to Jesus outside the Bible can be found in the writings of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. On two occasions, in his Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus. The second, less revealing, reference describes the condemnation of one “James” by the Jewish Sanhedrin. This James, says Josephus, was “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.”{14} F.F. Bruce points out how this agrees with Paul’s description of James in Galatians 1:19 as “the Lord’s brother.”{15} And Edwin Yamauchi informs us that “few scholars have questioned” that Josephus actually penned this passage.{16}

As interesting as this brief reference is, there is an earlier one, which is truly astonishing. Called the “Testimonium Flavianum,” the relevant portion declares:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared.{17}

Did Josephus really write this? Most scholars think the core of the passage originated with Josephus, but that it was later altered by a Christian editor, possibly between the third and fourth century A.D.{18} But why do they think it was altered? Josephus was not a Christian, and it is difficult to believe that anyone but a Christian would have made some of these statements.{19}

For instance, the claim that Jesus was a wise man seems authentic, but the qualifying phrase,
if indeed one ought to call him a man,” is suspect. It implies that Jesus was more than human, and it is quite unlikely that Josephus would have said that! It is also difficult to believe he would have flatly asserted that Jesus was the Christ, especially when he later refers to Jesus as “the so-called” Christ. Finally, the claim that on the third day Jesus appeared to His disciples restored to life, inasmuch as it affirms Jesus’ resurrection, is quite unlikely to come from a non-Christian!

But even if we disregard the questionable parts of this passage, we are still left with a good deal of corroborating information about the biblical Jesus. We read that he was a wise man who performed surprising feats. And although He was crucified under Pilate, His followers continued their discipleship and became known as Christians. When we combine these statements with Josephus’ later reference to Jesus as “the so-called Christ,” a rather detailed picture emerges which harmonizes quite well with the biblical record. It increasingly appears that the “biblical Jesus” and the “historical Jesus” are one and the same!

Evidence from the Babylonian Talmud

There are only a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings compiled between approximately A.D. 70-500. Given this time frame, it is naturally supposed that earlier references to Jesus are more likely to be historically reliable than later ones. In the case of the Talmud, the earliest period of compilation occurred between A.D. 70-200.{20} The most significant reference to Jesus from this period states:

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald . . . cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”{21}

Let’s examine this passage. You may have noticed that it refers to someone named “Yeshu.” So why do we think this is Jesus? Actually, “Yeshu” (or “Yeshua”) is how Jesus’ name is pronounced in Hebrew. But what does the passage mean by saying that Jesus “was hanged”? Doesn’t the New Testament say he was crucified? Indeed it does. But the term “hanged” can function as a synonym for “crucified.” For instance, Galatians 3:13 declares that Christ was “hanged”, and Luke 23:39 applies this term to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus.{22} So the Talmud declares that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover. But what of the cry of the herald that Jesus was to be stoned? This may simply indicate what the Jewish leaders were planning to do.{23} If so, Roman involvement changed their plans!{24}

The passage also tells us why Jesus was crucified. It claims He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy! Since this accusation comes from a rather hostile source, we should not be too surprised if Jesus is described somewhat differently than in the New Testament. But if we make allowances for this, what might such charges imply about Jesus?

Interestingly, both accusations have close parallels in the canonical gospels. For instance, the charge of sorcery is similar to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus cast out demons “by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.”{25} But notice this: such a charge actually tends to confirm the New Testament claim that Jesus performed miraculous feats. Apparently Jesus’ miracles were too well attested to deny. The only alternative was to ascribe them to sorcery! Likewise, the charge of enticing Israel to apostasy parallels Luke’s account of the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus of misleading the nation with his teaching.{26} Such a charge tends to corroborate the New Testament record of Jesus’ powerful teaching ministry. Thus, if read carefully, this passage from the Talmud confirms much of our knowledge about Jesus from the New Testament.

Evidence from Lucian

Lucian of Samosata was a second century Greek satirist. In one of his works, he wrote of the early Christians as follows:

The Christians . . . worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.{27}

Although Lucian is jesting here at the early Christians, he does make some significant comments about their founder. For instance, he says the Christians worshipped a man, “who introduced their novel rites.” And though this man’s followers clearly thought quite highly of Him, He so angered many of His contemporaries with His teaching that He “was crucified on that account.”

Although Lucian does not mention his name, he is clearly referring to Jesus. But what did Jesus teach to arouse such wrath? According to Lucian, he taught that all men are brothers from the moment of their conversion. That’s harmless enough. But what did this conversion involve? It involved denying the Greek gods, worshipping Jesus, and living according to His teachings. It’s not too difficult to imagine someone being killed for teaching that. Though Lucian doesn’t say so explicitly, the Christian denial of other gods combined with their worship of Jesus implies the belief that Jesus was more than human. Since they denied other gods in order to worship Him, they apparently thought Jesus a greater God than any that Greece had to offer!

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned about Jesus from this examination of ancient non-Christian sources. First, both Josephus and Lucian indicate that Jesus was regarded as wise. Second, Pliny, the Talmud, and Lucian imply He was a powerful and revered teacher. Third, both Josephus and the Talmud indicate He performed miraculous feats. Fourth, Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, and Lucian all mention that He was crucified. Tacitus and Josephus say this occurred under Pontius Pilate. And the Talmud declares it happened on the eve of Passover. Fifth, there are possible references to the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection in both Tacitus and Josephus. Sixth, Josephus records that Jesus’ followers believed He was the Christ, or Messiah. And finally, both Pliny and Lucian indicate that Christians worshipped Jesus as God!

I hope you see how this small selection of ancient non-Christian sources helps corroborate our knowledge of Jesus from the gospels. Of course, there are many ancient Christian sources of information about Jesus as well. But since the historical reliability of the canonical gospels is so well established, I invite you to read those for an authoritative “life of Jesus!”

Notes

1. F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 13.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Edwin Yamauchi, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 82.

5. Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.

6. N.D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale, 1969), 19, cited in Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 189-190.

7. Edwin Yamauchi, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.

8. Pliny, Epistles x. 96, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 25; Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 198.

9. Ibid., 27.

10. Pliny, Letters, transl. by William Melmoth, rev. by W.M.L. Hutchinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), vol. II, X:96, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.

11. M. Harris, “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors,” in Gospel Perspectives V, 354-55, cited in E. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?”, in Jesus Under Fire, ed. by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 227, note 66.

12. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.

13. Bruce, Christian Origins, 28.

14. Josephus, Antiquities xx. 200, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 36.

15. Ibid.

16. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament”, 212.

17. Josephus, Antiquities 18.63-64, cited in Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament”, 212.

18. Ibid.

19. Although time would not permit me to mention it on the radio, another version of Josephus’ “Testimonium Flavianum” survives in a tenth-century Arabic version (Bruce, Christian Origins, 41). In 1971, Professor Schlomo Pines published a study on this passage. The passage is interesting because it lacks most of the questionable elements that many scholars believe to be Christian interpolations. Indeed, “as Schlomo Pines and David Flusser…stated, it is quite plausible that none of the arguments against Josephus writing the original words even applies to the Arabic text, especially since the latter would have had less chance of being censored by the church” (Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194). The passage reads as follows: “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” (Quoted in James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1988), 95, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194).

20. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 202-03.

21. The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1935), vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203.

22. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203.

23. See John 8:58-59 and 10:31-33.

24. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 204. See also John 18:31-32.

25. Matt. 12:24. I gleaned this observation from Bruce, Christian Origins, 56.

26. Luke 23:2, 5.

27. Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), vol. 4., cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 206.

©2001 Probe Ministries


Jesus Christ Superstar

Kanye West vs. John Lennon

“Who do men say that I am?” (Matt 16:16)

In 1966, rock star John Lennon said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Lennon made the statement in the context of his predication about the demise of Christianity; “Christianity will go,” he said. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.” Lennon’s failed predication about the demise of Christianity, like so many since the eighteenth century, grossly underestimated the enormous appeal of Jesus.

Jesus Christ is the most popular figure in history and everyone wants a piece of him. Recent music artists tend to disagree with Lennon. The pop diva Kesha sings, “Got Jesus on my necklace.” Lady Gaga sings, “The three men I’m a serve my whole life is my Daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.” In his acclaimed single, “Jesus Walks,” a sort of Hip Hop gospel song, Kanye West raps and preaches:

I ain’t here to argue about his facial features
Or here to convert atheists into believers
I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus.

It is very reassuring to have Jesus on your team. There is a principle in marketing called “borrowed authority” where a spokesman such as an athlete or movie star endorses a product. Jesus represents the ultimate superstar whose intrinsic authority is borrowed to support every kind of religious and social movement. Even the apparent enemies of faith such as Secular Humanists claim to accept Jesus’ social ethics of peace and equality. Today cults and religions, Christian and non-Christian alike, all claim Jesus as their own or as a great teacher or prophet. Islam claims Jesus as a prophet and teacher of Islam who preceded Mohammad and predicted his coming.

The various images of Jesus may error in one of two ways, either in denying his full deity or neglecting his complete humanity. The biblical presentation shows Jesus Christ as the Word of God who became flesh (John 1). He is both Son of God and Son of Man. Traditional theology calls this the God/man union. This means Jesus is both fully God and fully man. This unity must be retained if we are to follow the Jesus of the Bible and not another Jesus invented by the spirit of the age to lend credibility to a given cause or religious movement.

Jesus once asked the apostle Peter, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter offered a very pluralistic answer: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” The idea that Jesus was a prophet is not wrong, just incomplete. When Christ asked Peter again, “Who do you say that I am?” he replied that Jesus was not just another great religious leader, but the incarnate savior when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:13-16).

The Humanist Tradition: Jesus as the Greatest Man

The emphasis since the Renaissance in Western thought has been on humanism. This means a stress in the arts and sciences on human dignity, freedom, and beauty as well as a renewed interest in the natural world as opposed to a transcendent emphasis on divinity or the authority of the church and the Bible as in the Middle Ages. Every age tends to portray Christ in its own image. In the Middle Ages, Christ is painted as King, divine and regal such as Pantocrator, ruler of all, from the sixth century. Today our view of Jesus reflects the humanist trend from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498) all the way to the Head of Christ by Warner Sallman (1940), which is by far the most popular portrait of Christ in history.

The famous German poet Goethe noted the sensual power of The Last Supper, which represents “‘the boldest attempt to adhere to nature, while, at the same time, the object is supernatural,’ with the result that ‘the majesty, the uncontrol}led will, the power and might of the Deity’ were not expressed.”{1}

This represents the modern liberal Jesus, which has been popular since the nineteenth century. This view shows Jesus as a great man and moral teacher, a faith healer who preached social reform, the Son of Man, but not the Son of God. Modern culture tends to think about Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived rather than the Son of God.

This is also true of “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” of the nineteenth century debunked by Albert Schweitzer as modern people portraying Jesus in their own image as a good ethical man, who did good deeds.{2} Despite the fact that the search for the Historical Jesus was shown to be biased towards modern views, it continues in movements like the Jesus Seminar and in the famous Baur-Ehrman thesis. Both argue for a historical Jesus who is not in the Gospels but is thought to be the earliest Jesus. They baptize Christ in contemporary culture by arguing that alternative views of Jesus preceded orthodoxy in the earliest Christian community. This presents another attempt to understand Jesus from a pluralistic perspective. The latest quest seeks greater diversity in our social ethics by presenting various views of Jesus.

A very human Jesus is not necessarily a false view, except if we say this is all that he was. So Jesus is the greatest man that ever lived, but he was more than that as well. He was also the incarnate God.

The Gnostic Jesus: The Great Spirit with a Message

There is no difference between the ancient world and the modern one concerning Jesus’ star power. Yesterday’s Gnostics, like today’s, wanted the credibility of having Jesus attached to their movement without really accepting him as their Lord and Savior, once again tapping into his borrowed authority. Gnosticism was a second century heretical belief that has experienced a considerable revival since the discovery of some of their lost documents in 1945. Gnostics believed that the material world is basically evil, created by a demiurge [Ed. Note: “A supernatural being imagined as creating or fashioning the world in subordination to the Supreme Being, and sometimes regarded as the originator of evil,” Dictionary.com] that departed from the Pleroma (the Gnostic view of God). The divine spark, or a piece of God, however, remains trapped in our physical bodies that can only be released through secret knowledge of divine messengers like Jesus.

A problem arises theologically when Gnostics reject the belief that Jesus had no physical body because the material world is evil. He only appeared as a man, like a phantom or hologram, but was really a divine spirit. Jesus was not a savior, but a teacher. Gnostics did not believe in salvation, meaning one is saved from sin by grace through faith. Instead, Gnostics taught enlightenment or the impartation of knowledge. People are not sinners, only ignorant of the divine spark within them.

Who was Jesus to the Gnostics? He was not the divine Son of God made flesh, but an elevated spirit being, an emanation sent to give special knowledge of how to ascend back to God. One of the greatest artistic expressions of Gnosticism comes from the modern Surrealist painter Salvador Dali in his depiction of Jesus in The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955), which shows a transparent effeminate Jesus as a sort of exalted spirit god administering the communion table. Here Jesus is divine, but not human.

Modern Gnostics like Dan Brown, some Feminists theologians and Neo-Gnostic churches are attracted to the apparent androgyny, diversity, and collusion of opposites in the Gnostic concept of God, which depicted the emanations in the Pleroma as both masculine and feminine. This leads to the notion that Gnosticism was more tolerant of differences and individualistic and offered a prominent role for women because its theological nomenclature spoke of “God the Father” and “God the Mother.”{3}

Yet the Gnostic belief system is antithetical to the entire tenor of the modern materialistic worldview. Most Neo-Gnostics adopt the psychological aspects of Gnosticism that appeal to the individual’s sense of superiority to the world. It is the world that is fallen in Gnosticism, not the individual. It is the creator who is at fault, not people. The unacceptable metaphysical aspect of Gnosticism to a modern materialist worldview makes it obvious that Neo-Gnostics are grasping at straws. They are looking for anything to validate their belief in diversity, androgyny, and individual superiority. What better person to turn to than the leading cultural figure of all time, Jesus Christ?

Arianism: Jesus the Creator Angel

Another major error in the history of Christian thought is named for its major proponent Arius (250-336). Arianism believes that Jesus was not equal with the Father but was a created being like an angel. In fact he is the chief of all the angels. Arius’ famous line states “there was a time when he was not.”{4} This means Jesus was a created being. All orthodox theology and teaching roundly rejects this view because it compromises the deity of Christ. In an effort to preserve the radical oneness of God, Arianism accomplishes the opposite by falling into polytheism. There is not one God, but two. The Father made the Son and the Son in turn made the rest of the world. It is similar to the modern view that says Jesus is the greatest man who ever lived with the added dimension of being like God but not equal to God. He is a god. This is one of the most common mistakes people make in their understanding of Jesus, even thinking that the term “Son of God” suggests an inferior station to the Father. The term “Son of God” means Jesus is equal to the Father (John 5:18).The Arian heresy was revived by some Unitarians in the modern Age, Isaac Newton being the most famous, but has been especially embraced by the cult of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who argue vigorously for the idea that Jesus is not God but a created being.

The famous theologian Athanasius (298-373) argued that our view of Jesus must be tied to our salvation. If we get our view of Jesus wrong we will also misunderstand salvation by grace. Only God creates and only God saves, but it is humanity that must suffer the penalty of sin. But because people are unable to offer the sacrifice for sin God must offer it himself in human form to save us. The dual nature of Christ solves this problem by making Christ the perfect sacrifice as the God/man. An angel is not capable of offering a sacrifice for sin. This is essentially what the book of Hebrews says: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:3, 4 cf. Heb. 2:14-18).

New Age Jesus: The Ascended Master

The New Age Jesus is very popular today. This is the belief that Jesus is one of the greatest religious leaders of all time, an “ascended master” much like Buddha or Krishna. Jesus is not the unique Son of God but one of many divine incarnations. He does not come to deliver us from sin but to enlighten us. He came to show us how we can achieve God-consciousness or to help us realize we are God within. This is similar to Gnostic idea of a divine spark left in humanity after the creation of the world.

Because of this the New Age is often confused with Gnosticism. There are correlations, but there are also substantial differences between the two. New Age thinking is pantheistic. This means God equals the all pervasive force of the universe, which makes it more happy and world-friendly as expressed in the modern ecology movements that find God in nature. Gnosticism is not pantheistic, but radically dualistic; the world is evil and the individual is good but trapped in the material world. Gnosticism tends to be dark and foreboding with other worldly hopes of escape and ascension. New Age tends to have hope in the current historical continuum of change. There is a New Age of Aquarius dawning right around the corner. We don’t find that optimism in Gnosticism.

The New Age version of Jesus expresses another aspect of Jesus’ popularity among non-Christian religions as well as spiritual but not traditionally religious Americans. Like Gnosticism, it absorbs Jesus into its belief system, but it also acquires greater credibility for itself by adopting Jesus. Most of the popular views of Jesus are a way of accepting a semblance of spirituality without really committing oneself to the message of Christ as the only way to the Father. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). The great offense today in Christianity is given by our belief in the exclusivity of Christ as the only way to God. Every alternative view of Jesus compromises this central idea, making Jesus one of many ways to God. The enormous popularity of Jesus need not create confusion. The Bible is very clear that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way to the Father. John Lennon and the Beatles have been relegated to the oldies station, but Jesus is still here and more popular than ever. We need to help refocus the culture’s acceptance of Jesus as the greatest man and religious leader with the biblical message of salvation that says Jesus is the incarnate Word sent to save us from sin and restore us to the Father.

Notes

1. Quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in History of Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 146-147.
2. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (New York: MacMilliian, 1964).
3. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1979); Bernard Simon, The Essence of the Gnostics (Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 2004), 203-220.
4. Quoted in Tony Lane, Harper’s Concise Book of Christian Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 28.

© 2012 Probe Ministries


Did Jesus Really Perform Miracles?

Former Probe intern Dr. Daniel Morais and Probe staffer Michael Gleghorn argue that Jesus’ miracles have a solid foundation in history and should be regarded as historical fact.

What Do Modern Historians Think?

“I can believe Jesus was a great person, a great teacher. But I can’t believe He performed miracles.” Ever hear comments like this? Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself. Did Jesus really perform miracles?

Marcus Borg, a prominent member of the Jesus Seminar{1}, has stated, “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”{2} Commenting on Jesus’ ability to heal the blind, deaf, and others, A. M. Hunter writes, “For these miracles the historical evidence is excellent.”{3}

Critical historians once believed that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible were purely the product of legendary embellishment. Such exaggerations about Jesus’ life and deeds developed from oral traditions which became more and more fantastic with time until they were finally recorded in the New Testament. We all know how tall tales develop. One person tells a story. Then another tells much the same story, but exaggerates it a bit. Over time the story becomes so fantastic that it barely resembles the original. This is what many scholars once believed happened to Jesus’ life, as it’s recorded in the Gospels. Is this true? And do most New Testament historians believe this today?

The answer is no. In light of the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels, few scholars today would attempt to explain these events as purely the result of legend or myth. In fact, most New Testament scholars now believe that Jesus did in fact perform healings and exorcisms.{4} Even many liberal scholars would say that Jesus drew large crowds of people primarily because of his ability to heal and “exorcise demons.”{5} But because many of these liberal scholars don’t believe in spiritual beings, they also don’t believe that these healings should be attributed to the direct intervention of God in the world. Instead, they believe that Jesus’ miracles and healings have a purely natural explanation. Many of them think that Jesus only healed psychosomatic maladies.{6} The term psychosomatic means mind-body, so psychosomatic maladies are mind-body problems. The mind can have a powerful impact on the health of the body. Under extreme distress people can become blind, deaf or even suffer paralysis. Since psychosomatic problems typically go away on their own, many liberal scholars think that faith in Jesus’ ability to heal might help to heal some people suffering from these conditions. But is there good reason to believe that Jesus could cure real sicknesses?

Could These Miracles Be Legendary?

Often, historians who tried to explain away stories of Jesus’ miracles as purely the result of legendary developments believed that the “real” Jesus was little more than a good man and a wise teacher. The major problem with this theory is that legends take time to develop. Multiple generations would be needed for the true oral tradition regarding Jesus’ life to be replaced by an exaggerated, fictitious version. For example, many historians believe that Alexander the Great’s biography stayed fairly accurate for about five hundred years. Legendary details didn’t begin to develop until the following five hundred years.{7} A gross misrepresentation of Jesus’ life occurring one or two generations after his death is highly unlikely. Jesus was a very public figure. When He entered a town, He drew large crowds of people. Jesus is represented as a miracle worker at every level of the New Testament tradition. This includes not only the four Gospels, but also the hypothetical sayings source, called Q, which may have been written just a few years after Jesus’ death. Many eyewitnesses of Christ would still have been alive at the time these documents were composed. These eyewitnesses were the source of the oral tradition regarding Jesus’ life, and in light of his very public ministry, a strong oral tradition would be present in Israel for many years after his death.

If Jesus had never actually performed any miracles, then the Gospel writers would have faced a nearly impossible task in getting anyone to believe that He had. It would be like trying to change John F. Kennedy from a great president into an amazing miracle worker. Such a task would be virtually impossible since many of us have seen JFK on TV, read about him in the papers, or even seen him in person. Because he was a public figure, oral tradition about his life is very strong even today. Anyone trying to introduce this false idea would never be taken seriously.

During the second half of the first century, Christians faced intense persecution and even death. These people obviously took the disciples’ teaching about Jesus’ life seriously. They were willing to die for it. This only makes sense if the disciples and the authors of the Gospels represented Jesus’ life accurately. You can’t easily pass off made-up stories about public figures when eyewitnesses are still alive who remember them. Oral tradition tends to remain fairly accurate for many generations after their deaths.{8}

In light of this, it’s hard to deny that Jesus did in fact work wonders.

Conversion from Legend to Conversion Disorder

It might be surprising to hear that Jesus is believed by most New Testament historians to have been a successful healer and exorcist.{9} Since His miracles are the most conspicuous aspect of his ministry, the miracle tradition found in the Gospels could not be easily explained had their authors started with a Jesus who was simply a wise teacher. Prophets and teachers of the law were not traditionally made into miracle workers; there are almost no examples of this in the literature available to us.{10} It’s especially unlikely that Jesus would be made into a miracle worker since many Jews didn’t expect that the Messiah would perform miracles. The Gospel writers would not have felt the need to make this up were it not actually the case.{11}

Of course, most liberal scholars today don’t believe Jesus could heal any real illnesses. But such conclusions are reached, not because of any evidence, but because of prior prejudices against the supernatural. Secular historians deny that Jesus cured any real, organic illnesses or performed any nature miracles such as walking on water.{12} They believe He could only heal conversion disorders or the symptoms associated with real illnesses.{13} Conversion disorder is a rare condition that afflicts approximately fourteen to twenty-two of every 100,000 people.{14} Conversion disorders are psychosomatic problems in which intense emotional trauma results in blindness, paralysis, deafness, and other baffling impairments.

Many liberal scholars today would say that Jesus drew large crowds of people primarily because of his ability to heal. But if Jesus could only cure conversion disorders, then it’s unlikely He would have drawn such large crowds. As a practicing optometrist, I’ve seen thousands of patients with real vision loss due either to refractive problems or pathology. But only one of them could be diagnosed with blindness due to conversion disorder. Conversion disorders are rare. In order for Jesus to draw large crowds of people He would have had to be a successful healer. But if He could only heal conversion disorders, thousands of sick people would have had to be present for him to heal just one person. But how could He draw such large crowds if He could only heal one person in 10,000? Sick people would have often needed to travel many miles to see Jesus. Such limited ability to heal could hardly have motivated thousands of people to walk many miles to see Jesus, especially if they were sick and feeble. If Jesus was drawing large crowds, He must have been able to heal more than simply conversion disorders.

Did Jesus Raise the Dead?

“Did Jesus ever raise the dead? Is there any evidence to back this up?” Many secular historians, though agreeing that Jesus was a successful healer and exorcist, don’t believe that He could perform nature miracles. Due to prior prejudices against the supernatural, these historians don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to raise the dead, walk on water, or heal true organic diseases. These historians believe Jesus’ healings were primarily psychological in nature.{15} Is there any evidence that Jesus had the power to work actual miracles such as raising the dead?

Yes. It almost seems that the more fantastic the miracle, the more evidence is available to support it. In fact, the most incredible miracle recorded in the Gospels is actually the one which has the greatest evidential support. This miracle is Jesus’ resurrection.{16} Is there any reason to believe that Jesus may have raised others from the dead as well?

There is compelling evidence to believe that He did. In John 11 there’s the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.{17} A careful reading of this text reveals many details that would be easy for anyone in the first century to confirm or deny. John records that Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. He also says that this miracle took place in Bethany where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived, and that Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem. John’s gospel is believed to have been written in AD 90, just sixty years after the events it records. It’s possible that a few people who witnessed this event, or at least had heard of it, would still be alive to confirm it. If someone wanted to check this out, it would be easy to do. John says this took place in Bethany, and then He tells us the town’s approximate location. All someone would have to do to check this out would be to go to Bethany and ask someone if Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had ever been raised from the dead. Villages were generally small in those days and people knew each other’s business. Almost anyone in that town could easily confirm or deny whether they had ever heard of such an event. If John just made this story up, he probably wouldn’t have included so much information that could be easily checked out by others to see if he was lying. Instead, he probably would have written a vague story about Jesus going to some unnamed town where He raised some unnamed person from the dead. This way no one could confirm or deny the event. John put these details in to show that he wasn’t lying. He wanted people to investigate his story. He wanted people to go to Bethany, ask around, and see for themselves what really happened there.

What Did Jesus’ Enemies Say?

“Sure, Jesus’ followers believed He could work miracles. But what about his enemies, what did they say?” If Jesus never worked any miracles, we would expect ancient, hostile Jewish literature to state this fact. But does such literature deny Jesus’ ability to work miracles? There are several unsympathetic references to Jesus in ancient Jewish and pagan literature as early as the second century AD. But none of the ancient Jewish sources deny Jesus’ ability to perform miracles.{18} Instead, they try to explain these powers away by referring to him as a sorcerer.{19} If the historical Jesus were merely a wise teacher who only later, through legendary embellishments, came to be regarded as a miracle worker, there should have been a prominent Jewish oral tradition affirming this fact. This tradition would likely have survived among the Jews for hundreds of years in order to counter the claims of Christians who might use Jesus’ miraculous powers as evidence of his divine status. But there’s no evidence that any such Jewish tradition portrayed Jesus as merely a wise teacher. Many of these Jewish accounts are thought to have arisen from a separate oral tradition apart from that held by Christians, and yet both traditions agree on this point.{20} If it were known that Jesus had no special powers, these accounts would surely point that out rather than reluctantly affirm it. The Jews would likely have been uncomfortable with Jesus having miraculous powers since this could be used as evidence by his followers to support his self-proclaimed status as the unique Son of God (a position most Jews firmly denied). This is why Jesus’ enemies tried to explain his powers away as sorcery.

Not only do these accounts affirm Jesus’ supernatural abilities, they also seem to support the ability of his followers to heal in his name. In the Talmud, there’s a story of a rabbi who is bitten by a venomous snake and calls on a Christian named Jacob to heal him. Unfortunately, before Jacob can get there, the rabbi dies.{21} Apparently, the rabbi believed this Christian could heal him. Not only did Jews seem to recognize the ability of Christians to heal in Christ’s name, but pagans did as well. The name of Christ has been found in many ancient pagan spells.{22} If even many non-Christians recognized that there was power to heal in Christ’s name, there must have been some reason for it.

So, a powerful case can be made for the historicity of Jesus’ miracles. Christians needn’t view these miracles as merely symbolic stories intended to teach lessons. These miracles have a solid foundation in history and should be regarded as historical fact.

Notes

1. Gary R. Habermas, “Did Jesus Perform Miracles?,” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, by eds. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 124.
2. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 61.
3. A.M. Hunter, Jesus: Lord and Saviour (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 63.
4. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 124.
5. See Borg, Jesus, A New Vision, 60.
6. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 125.
7. Craig L. Blomberg, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 33.
8. Grant R Jeffrey, The Signature of God (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998) 102, 103.
9. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 124, 125.
10. Smith, Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? (Berkeley: Seastone, 1998), 21.
11. Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus, The Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 247.
12. Ibid.
13. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 125.
14. See the National Organization for Rare Diseases’ official Web site at www.rarediseases.org/nord/search/rdbdetail_fullreport_pf (5/04/2006).
15. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 125.
16. William Lane Craig, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, by eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 247-261 and Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” Ibid., 261-275.
17. John. 11:1-44.
18. See Alan Humm, “Toledoth Yeshu,” at ccat.sas.upenn.edu/humm/Topics/JewishJesus/toledoth.html (2/17/1997).
19. Ibid.
20. Twelftree, Jesus, The Miracle Worker, 255.
21. Smith, Jesus the Magician, 63.
22. Ibid., 83.

©2006 Probe Ministries


Evidence of Jesus’ Existence?

Rusty Wright responds to the 2002 news about the ossuary (bone box) with the very intriguing and unusual inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

Rarely these days does Israel make headlines for something other than conflict. But a recent (Fall 2002) announcement about an ancient artifact there attracted wide attention.

Biblical Archaeology Review revealed that a stone ossuary (bone receptacle) has an inscription reading “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If authentic, this would be the earliest archaeological find that corroborates biblical references to Jesus.

Andre Lemaire, a French expert on ancient writings from the Sorbonne, suspected the ossuary’s significance when he saw it in the owner’s private collection.

Time magazine claims that if the ossuary is authentic and the inscription refers to the biblical James, “this would be the most important discovery in the history of New Testament archaeology.”

The New Testament in several places refers to James, Jesus’ brother. In Matthew 13:53-55, citizens of Jesus’ hometown Nazareth mention “His brother…James….” Paul, an early expositor of the faith, refers to “James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19), a leader of Jerusalem’s Christians.

Is the ossuary a first-century antiquity or a later forgery? The Geological Survey of Israel subjected it to rigorous tests. It is made of Jerusalem-area limestone quarried from the first or second century A.D. Its patina (sheen) bears evidence of centuries in a cave and shows no evidence of modern chemicals or disruption. Survey scientists conclude it’s not a later forgery.

Paleography, the science of ancient writings, supports the early date. Johns Hopkins paleographer P. Kyle McCarter says the “script is consistent with a date in the middle of the first century A.D.” Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, put James’ death in 62 A.D.

Does the inscription refer to the biblical James, Joseph and Jesus? Lemaire’s statistical analysis argues that in mid-first-century Jerusalem “there were probably about 20 people who could be called ‘James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.’”

Only one other known ancient Jewish ossuary inscription mentions a brother. Was this Jesus, James’ brother, mentioned because he was well known? Lemaire sees a 90 percent chance that the ossuary’s James is the biblical brother of Jesus.

The case has critics. We know nothing of the ossuary’s original location; evidence might have been compromised. At least one scholar disagrees with Lemaire’s paleographic dating of the box. Some question his statistical basis for eliminating other possible Jameses in Jerusalem and feel that Lemaire overstates his case. But at least one feels he understates it.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam claim historical foundations. Historical and archaeological confirmation — or contradiction — of their writings affects their credibility.

Christian faith does not stand or fall on the authenticity of this ossuary. But if genuine, the ossuary supports the conclusion of the late, renowned Jewish archaeologist Nelson Glueck, who asserted “the almost incredibly accurate historical memory of the Bible, and particularly so when it is fortified by archaeological fact.”

Duke University Judaic Studies professor Eric Meyers, while advising caution on the James ossuary, feels “there is a strong possibility that the artifact is what Lemaire says it is: the oldest extra-biblical archaeological evidence of Jesus.”

© 2002 Rusty Wright. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Christ’s Inner Circle – The Primary Apostles of Jesus

Don Closson examines the ministry and role of the four most prominent apostles, Peter, Andrew, John and James. He shows how these primary apostles were changed from fishermen into true fishers of men through the power of the Lord.

This article is also available in Spanish.

Matthew 10:2-4 records:

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Christians hold in high esteem (excluding Judas Iscariot) those who were personally called by Jesus and who walked with Him during His ministry on Earth. That is especially true of the twelve Apostles. The Greek words used for apostle convey both the notions of sending or dispatching (apostolos) as well as the idea of commissioning someone with divine authorization (apostello). The idea of apostleship might be traced back to the Hebrew notion of an envoy. This Jewish institution would have been familiar to Jesus and is well documented in the rabbinic writings where it refers to “one who has been authorized to carry out certain functions on behalf of another.” A well-known Jewish adage is “a man’s envoy is as himself.”

It is interesting to note that Jesus called to Himself those whom He wished (Mark 3:13-14). There were no volunteers. They were to travel, share food, and live with Jesus, experiencing firsthand His life and ministry. They were then sent out to proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, and that they had been commissioned to act as Jesus’ representatives with His authority.

Lists of the Twelve are found in four places in the New Testament, and comparisons of the lists can reveal important information about the apostles. Peter is always mentioned first and Judas Iscariot last. The twelve are also listed in three groups of four, the first four always being Peter, Andrew, James, and John. This group of four apostles had a special relationship with Christ and will be the focus of this article.

Another interesting insight into the make-up of the group can be found in the process used to replace Judas Iscariot after his death. The first chapter of Acts states that Judas’ replacement must have accompanied the apostles from the beginning. In other words, he must have been present at John’s baptism of Christ and still around to see Jesus’ ascension into heaven. It was also noted that he must have been an eyewitness to the resurrection. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the life, teachings, miracles, and finally the death and resurrection of our Lord. This was essential for them to have a clear and accurate testimony of the Messiah.

In this article we will look at the inner circle of Christ’s apostles: Peter, Andrew, James and John. We will see how God changed the lives of these ordinary men forever.

The Apostle Peter

In every one of the four lists of the Apostles found in the New Testament, Peter is always mentioned first. Peter is often called the primus inter pares or the first among equals. It is obvious that he plays a leadership role among his fellow apostles and is recognized by Christ as a foundation of the church. Although we might debate what this leadership role is, we cannot deny its existence.

The New Testament gives Peter four names. His Hebrew name was Symeon, which in Greek is Simon. Peter was probably a bilingual Jew who was influenced by the Greek culture in Galilee at the time. John records that Jesus gave him the Aramaic name Cephas which translates as Peter in Greek and means “a rock.” This new name given by Jesus is an indication of how Peter would change while under the Lord’s influence. Peter’s early impetuousness would be transformed into that of a stable, charismatic witness for Christ.

Unlike many of the other Apostles, the New Testament gives us some background information about Peter’s family life. His father’s name was Jonah or John and we know that he was married. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14), and Paul mentions that Peter took his wife with him on journeys to various churches (1 Cor. 9:5). Peter probably lived with his brother, Andrew, in Bethsaida and later moved to Capernaum as he followed Jesus in ministry.

Peter became a disciple in the very early days of Jesus’ ministry. John mentions an early encounter with Jesus after Andrew introduces the two. Later, perhaps a year or so, Matthew and Mark record Jesus calling Peter to full-time ministry as a fisher of men.

As an apostle, Peter plays a significant role among the Twelve. Peter is often singled out and the rest are mentioned as a group with him (Mark 1:36). He also acts as a spokesman for the group. In Luke 12 he asks Jesus about the meaning of a parable. In Matthew 16 he affirms Jesus as the Messiah, and then in chapter 19 he reminds Jesus of the sacrifices made by the apostles as a group. He is often the first to act as well. Matthew 14 records Peter’s attempt to meet Jesus on the water, even though he loses heart midway.

Peter’s leadership role lends added significance to a number of events in the Bible. For instance, the detail given of Peter’s denial of Jesus has its impact precisely because of Peter’s prominence in the group. Also, the account in John chapter 21 of Jesus questioning Peter’s love and admonishing him to “feed my sheep” takes on poignancy.

The Apostle Peter and His Brother Andrew

The Roman Catholic Church has long used Matthew 16:17-19 as justification for the office of the Pope and the succession of popes starting with Peter. Protestants have reacted by tending to downplay Peter’s significance as a leader among the apostles and any special office that he might hold in the body of Christ. As I mentioned previously, Peter is clearly represented as the leader of the apostles. However, the use of this passage in Matthew to justify the modern office of the Pope reads too much into the Scriptures.

For instance, Matthew 16 says nothing about Peter’s successors, their infallibility, or their authority. Part of the problem with ascribing these attributes to Peter’s successor is that he would have had authority over a still living apostle, John. Peter is the first to make a formal confession of faith (Matt. 16:16), but he continues on as a very fallible part of the team Christ has assembled. He is sent, along with John, by the apostles to Samaria, when word had come that some had accepted the word of God there. In Acts 11 the church in Jerusalem took issue with Peter’s entering a gentile’s home. Although they eventually agreed with his explanation, they still had the authority to question Peter’s actions. In Galatians, Paul writes that he rebuked Peter to his face for separating himself from the Gentiles when accompanied by Jews from Jerusalem (Galatians 2:11). The New Testament allows us to claim Peter as the leader of the apostles, but not the first in a line of infallible popes.

Where Peter is outspoken and prominent, his brother Andrew was happy to play a background role among the Twelve. Andrew worked in his father’s fishing business with Peter in Bethsaida and probably shared a home with Peter until Peter’s marriage.

Although Andrew is listed as one of the inner circle closest to Jesus, we do not have a lot of information about his ministry. He is first mentioned as a follower of John the Baptist. When John directs his followers towards Jesus, Andrew is quick to seek time with the Lord. After listening to Jesus for a few hours, Andrew is convinced that Jesus is the messiah and immediately begins to tell others, starting with his brother Peter.

Andrew has been called “the apostle who shared Christ personally.” Andrew was recorded as one who brought people to Christ. First he brings Peter to the Lord, then at Passover he introduces searching Greek Gentiles to Jesus. When food is needed to feed the multitude, Andrew brings a child with bread and fish.

Andrew may not have had the leadership qualities of his brother Peter. He is never noted for his eloquent speech or his bold actions. However, one can imagine Andrew’s heart when his brother, whom he introduced to the Lord, preached in the power of the Spirit in Jerusalem, resulting in thousands of new believers. Andrew may have played a background role among the inner circle of Christ’s followers, but it was a vital role just the same.

The Sons of Zebedee

James and John make up the other pair of brothers who were part of Christ’s inner circle. Like Peter and Andrew, they were also from Bethsaida and worked together with them in the fishing industry. They were known as the “sons of thunder” because of their fiery temperaments, which would occasionally give rise to some awkward moments (Mark 3:17). Their father, Zebedee, and mother, Salome, were probably well off materially. The family is mentioned to have had servants (Mark 1:20) and Salome ministered to Jesus with her resources (Matthew 27:55-56). John implies that Salome is Mary’s sister, making James and John cousins to Jesus (John 19:25).

Both James and John are members of the first group of four apostles, always mentioned first in lists of the Twelve. But they are also part of what might be called the inner three, those into whom Christ poured special time and teachings.

It is widely recognized that the designation “the disciple whom Jesus loved” refers to the apostle John. John stands out among the apostles as being the only one to have witnessed the crucifixion and afterwards, took Jesus’ mother home to live with him (John 19:25-27). He was also the first of the twelve to see the empty tomb.

John was first a follower of John the Baptist. That meant that he was seriously seeking God prior to meeting Jesus and was primed to make a commitment to the Messiah. He and Andrew had an early encounter with Jesus before becoming full time disciples. Both had spent time listening to the Lord and becoming convinced of His authenticity. While with Jesus, their temperaments became evident on a number of occasions. Luke describes an incident in which John asks Jesus if they should call down fire on a Samaritan village that had refused them hospitality (Luke 9:54). Having just experienced the transfiguration of Jesus, John was indignant at the lack of proper respect for his Lord.

There is also the well-known incident when Salome asks Jesus to place one of her sons at His right hand when He establishes His kingdom (Matthew 20:21). Jesus responds sharply to the request by telling them that they do not know what they are asking. He asks them, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22) With their typical bravado, they answer, “We can.” They were still hoping that Jesus was about to establish a political kingdom in Israel. They did not realize that His kingdom would begin with His sacrificial, atoning death on the cross. It is somewhat fitting that James becomes the first martyr from among the Twelve. Acts 12 records that Herod Agrippa had James put to death by the sword probably around 42 A.D. (Acts 12:2)

The apostle John was an interesting combination: the disciple Jesus loved, and yet one who could be intolerant and self-seeking. James would be the first to die a martyr, and yet his brother would live the longest of all the apostles. Next we will look at the legacy left by the inner circle of Jesus and what we can learn from their lives.

The Legacy of Those Closest to Jesus

John writes in Revelation 21:10, 14:

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. . . . The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Whether this verse refers to an actual city as many argue, or to the church or body of Christ, as others hold, it portrays the remarkable honor allotted to the Twelve Apostles. And among the Twelve, Jesus poured His life into an inner circle that had a key role in establishing the church. Peter, Andrew, James and John were privileged to be with Jesus when He healed Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37), and at the Transfiguration of Christ (Mark 9:2). They were the audience at the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:3) and were with Jesus during His time of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37).

These four men left quite a legacy. Peter is credited with providing the material for the book of Mark and the two epistles given his name. He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem during the first 15 years covered in the first twelve books of Acts, after which James, the brother of Jesus, took over. Peter then became a missionary to the Jews and to a lesser degree, the Gentiles. Although tradition gives Peter credit for leading the church at Rome, it is unlikely. Yet he did go there near the end of his ministry and probably suffered martyrdom there.

The last mention we have of Andrew is in the upper room with Jesus. The book of Acts is silent regarding him. Tradition has Andrew traveling as a missionary to Russia and meeting martyrdom by crucifixion at Patras in Greece around 60 A.D.

We know that James was the first of the Twelve to be put to death. Thus he left no writings. Tradition has it that the officer guarding James was so taken by his testimony that he repented and was beheaded with the apostle.

Finally, we have the apostle John. Along with internal evidence from the book of John, early church fathers Irenaeus and Polycrates identify the apostle John as the “disciple Jesus loved.” Having lived the life of an apostle the longest, John wrote the fourth gospel, the remarkable book of Revelation, and three epistles to the church. Of all Christ’s followers, John conveys the majesty of Christ the most clearly. According to tradition, John spent his last days in Ephesus, traveling there after the death of Domitian (who had exiled him to the Isle of Patmos). John’s followers, Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius, would become pillars in Christ’s church, just as John had been.

Ordinary fishermen, these four men are a testimony to the life changing impact that walking with our Savior can have on anyone who chooses to be His disciple.

©2001 Probe Ministries.


Jesus: Political Martyr or Atoning God?

Introduction

Every Easter season journalists feel obliged to write something relating to Jesus and the passion narratives. This year our paper covered the current struggle many are having over the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. The paper quotes a seminary professor in Atlanta who has observed that more and more of his students are rejecting the traditional view of why Christ died and what His death accomplished. The professor says, “They don’t consider Jesus a ransom for sin. They shudder at hymns glorifying the ‘power of the blood.’ They cringe at calling the day Jesus died Good Friday.”{1} Yet even more serious is their rejection of a God who required a human sacrifice in order to forgive people. This version of God simply does not mesh with their views of how a God who “is love” would behave.

Although disturbing, we shouldn’t be surprised. Our culture has been moving away from a biblical view of truth and toward the acknowledgment of just one moral duty or virtue, that is–tolerance. This new absolute requires that we be tolerant of every possible faith assumption and moral system except, it seems, the traditional Christian view of God and salvation. It’s not that we have new information about the life of Jesus or the reason for His death. As a society we no longer want to hear about a God who is holy and requires satisfaction when His moral order is violated. This view applies the notion “I’m OK, you’re OK to God.” Maybe if we tolerate Him, even with His outdated notions of holiness, He will tolerate us in our fallenness.

Was Jesus just a political martyr, or was his death an atonement for sin? What is remarkable is that some individuals who claim to be Christian, who desire seminary training, reject what the Bible teaches about the nature of God and the salvation He has provided in Christ. When cut-off from the Bible, our perception of God can become a mere reflection of our culture’s likes and dislikes. Even when the Bible is consulted, it is often interpreted through the lens of absolute tolerance. However, if the necessity of Christ’s death for our sins is denied, the Gospel is no longer Good News and Christianity’s message of grace is abandoned, leaving us with an ethical system with no basis for forgiveness or reconciliation with God.

Unfortunately, the Bible contains a lot of bad news. It says that because of the Fall we are in bondage to sin and the kingdom of Satan, and that without Christ everyone is separated from God and under His wrath. As a result, we all deserve death and eternal punishment. Why then do we call the biblical message Gospel or good news? How does the death of Christ relate to mankind’s precarious condition? How has the church attempted to explain what the death of Christ accomplished? Lets take a deeper look at what theologians call the atonement.

What Did Jesus’ Death Accomplish?

As we mentioned earlier, the notion of God requiring a blood sacrifice for sin is becoming less and less palatable to modern tastes. It is not surprising then that many question the idea that the death of Christ was an atoning sacrifice for humanity’s sins.

What did the death of Jesus accomplish? As we investigate this issue, we should keep in mind that the answer depends on what one believes to be true concerning the kind of person God the Father is, who Jesus Christ is, and the current condition of mankind. For instance, if God the Father is not all that upset by sin, or if Jesus was just a good man and no more, the death of Christ might be seen as an encouragement or example to mankind, not as a payment for sin. This, in fact, is the first view of the atonement we will consider.

In the sixteenth century Laelius Socinus taught that the obedience and death of Jesus were part of a perfect life that was pleasing to God and should be seen primarily as an example for the rest of humanity. Socinians rejected the idea of Jesus being a payment for sin. To support this view they point to 1 Peter 2:21 which says “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps.” As mentioned earlier, one’s view of the atonement depends on his or her view of God and humanity. The Socinians taught that mankind is capable of living in a manner pleasing to God, both morally and spiritually. They accepted the teachings of Pelagius, a 4th century theologian who argued that mankind is able to take the initial steps toward salvation independent of God’s help. This Socinian tenet became the foundation of Unitarian thought which rejects the notion of the Trinity as well.

There are a number of passages in the Bible that make the Socinian perspective untenable. Even the passage in 1 Peter 2 works against their view. Jesus was an example for us, but verse 24 adds that, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” The entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament taught the Jews the need for atonement, a way for God’s people to return to a harmonious relationship with God. The annual “Day of Atonement” sacrifice was instituted to cleanse Israel from all of her sins, thus removing God’s wrath from the nation. The book of Hebrews teaches that Jesus was the perfect high priest as well as the perfect sacrifice, making the final atonement for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17). Yes, Jesus was an example of a sinless human life, but He was so much more than that.

Views of the Atonement

 

Many modern day theologians argue that Jesus did no more than die a martyr’s death on behalf of the poor and marginalized people of the world. His death was more a political act than a spiritual one. As one scholar writes, “The salvation he brings is a transformation of the social order. . .”{2} According to this view, Jesus is to be seen as a political figure who challenged the power structures of His day and offered salvation through class warfare and the redistribution of wealth. Needless to say, this has not been the position held by the church for the last two thousand years.

In light of the Socinian theory, that the death of Jesus was merely an example and that salvation comes by living like Jesus lived, a response quickly followed by a man named Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Where Socinus taught that we were only required to do our best and respond to God’s love for salvation, Grotius pictured God differently. Grotius focused on the holiness and righteousness of God, and the fact that this holy God has established a universe governed by moral laws. Sin is defined as a violation of these laws. Sin is not necessarily an attack on the person of God but on the office of ruler that God holds. As ruler, God has the right, but not necessarily the obligation, to punish sin. God can forgive sin and remove humanity’s guilt if He so chooses. Grotius held that God did indeed choose to be gracious and yet acted in a manner that teaches the severity of sin. As one theologian has written:

It was in the best interest of humankind for Christ to die. Forgiveness of their sins, if too freely given, would have resulted in undermining the law’s authority and effectiveness. It was necessary to have an atonement which would provide grounds for forgiveness and simultaneously retain the structure of moral government.{3}

Often called the “governmental theory” of the atonement, it argues that the death of Christ was a real offering to God, enabling Him to deal mercifully with mankind. The chief impact of the act was on man, not on God. God didn’t need to have His wrath satisfied by blood atonement, but humanity did need to be taught the severity of sin and only an act of great magnitude could accomplish this lesson.

Although this is an interesting approach, it lacks scriptural confirmation. As one critic notes, “We search in vain in Grotius for specific biblical texts setting forth his major point.” Being a lawyer, Grotius was attracted to the Old Testament idea expressed in Isaiah 42:21 which says that God will magnify His law and make it glorious. Fortunately, the New Testament reveals that God had a plan to both maintain His law and provide a gracious plan of substitutional atonement in Christ.

Views of the Atonement

Modern theologians like Dr. Marcus Borg, who teaches at Oregon State University, doubt that Jesus understood His death to be an atonement for sin. He teaches that Jesus was only aware of the political and religious implications of His actions.{4} How does this compare with teaching on this subject down through the centuries?

So far we have considered the historical views of Socinus and Grotius regarding the atonement. Both taught that the death of Christ primarily affected humanity. Socinus argued that Christ gave us a model to follow: a blueprint for living a good life. Grotius taught that Christ’s death served to give humanity an accurate picture of the devastating impact of sin.

One of the earliest views of the atonement was quite different from both of these perspectives. Often called the ransom theory, this teaching was developed by the Church Fathers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. It was probably the way Augustine thought about the atonement as well, and it was popular until the time of Anselm in the eleventh century (1033-1109).

Origen held that the Bible teaches believers “were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20), and that Jesus told His followers that He was a ransom for many and that His death has delivered us from the dominion of darkness (Mk. 10:45, Col. 1:13). From this he surmised that Christ’s death actually was a payment to Satan, buying, if you will, those held hostage by the fallen angel. Origen argued the death of Christ mostly impacted Satan, paying him off in order to gain the release of his captives. While it is true that we were bought at a price and have been delivered from darkness, the Bible never mentions that sinners owe anything to Satan.

Gregory of Nyssa held that God actually tricked Satan to gain our release. Satan thought he was getting a perfect man to replace the many already in his grasp. Instead God tricked him by wrapping Christ’s humanity around His deity. However, the notion that Jesus was offered primarily as a sacrifice to Satan didn’t fit well with Scripture.

Instead, the Bible often speaks of the need to appease the wrath of God. Romans 3:25 tells us that God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement or a propitiation. The Greek word used here carries that meaning of “a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God–and thereby makes God propitious (or favorable) towards us.”{5} Hebrews 2:17 states: “For this reason he (Jesus) had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” 1 John 2:1-2 adds that Jesus “Speaks to the Father in our defense” and “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The impact of the atonement is not on Satan, but on God the Father.

The Satisfaction Theory

Did he die as a political martyr, having no notion that His death might accomplish something eternally significant? Or did Jesus and His followers assume that his death fulfilled a divine purpose? It is common for modern thinkers to discount the supernatural elements in their explanations of his death. For instance, historian Paula Fredriksen, professor at Boston University, argues that both his arrest and the events that followed probably shocked Jesus.{6} She implies that the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity are to be thought of and analyzed only at the political or sociological level: that nothing miraculous occurred. This is obviously not the traditional view of the church.

Most evangelical Christians hold to an Anselmic view of the atonement. Anselm (1033-1109) was the archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century. He constructed a logical argument that God must, and did, become a man in the person of Jesus Christ because of the necessity of the atonement. According to Anselm, when mankind sinned it took something from God. By rebelling against God’s holiness and failing to recognize the authority that God has to rule, humanity failed to render God His due. Not only have we taken from God what is His, we have injured His reputation and owe compensation.

God must act in a manner consistent with His role of creator and ruler of the cosmos. He cannot arbitrarily choose to ignore a challenge to His authority. We cannot merely pay back or make reparations for our personal sin. Compensation is necessary for the damage done to all creation since the Fall, and this compensation is greater than what our deaths alone would repay: thus the necessity of both the incarnation and the atonement.

The Anselmic view carries with it some important implications.

First, it holds that humanity is unable to satisfy the harm done by sin. God had to act on our behalf or salvation would be impossible.

Second, God’s actions show that He is both holy and just, and at the same time a remarkably loving God.

Third, this view highlights the centrality of grace in Christian theology. Each person must accept the infinitely valuable and gracious gift of God’s provision for sin because our own efforts to please God will always fall short.

The Anselmic perspective gives believers a great deal of security. We know that it is not our works that earn salvation, but Christ’s sacrificial death that paid the price for sin even before we committed our first transgression.

Finally, Christ’s death on the cross highlights the horrible price for sin. With this knowledge we should be eternally grateful for what God has done on our behalf.{7}

Notes

 

1. Susan Hogan-Albach, “Christians struggle with the meaning of the cross,” Dallas Morning News, Saturday, April 7, 2001, 2G.

2. Ibid., 3G.

3. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), 790.

4. Hogan-Albach, 3G.

5. Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 254.

6. Hogan-Albach, 3G.

 

7. Erickson, 822-823.

©2001 Probe Ministries.


Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin?

Aren’t Miracles Impossible?

Of the four canonical gospels, there are two, Matthew and Luke, that provide details about the birth of Jesus. The accounts may reflect the unique perspectives of both Joseph (in Matthew’s gospel) and Mary (in Luke’s), for there are many differences between the two.{1} However, of the things they share in common, one cannot be missed. They both declare that Jesus was miraculously conceived through the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit in the womb of a young virgin named Mary.{2} Today, some scholars regard the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth as simply a legendary development of the early church. The story is said to be myth–not history.{3} But if we ask why they think this, we may notice something very interesting. For the virgin birth is usually not rejected on grounds of insufficient historical evidence. Rather, it is more often rejected on the presupposition that miracles are simply impossible.{4} This is quite revealing. For if such scholars really believe that miracles are impossible, then no amount of evidence can convince them that one has actually occurred. Their minds are made up before they examine the evidence. In theory, they view miracle claims as guilty until proven innocent. In actual practice, however, they never reach a verdict of “Not Guilty”!

The belief that miracles are impossible often arises from a naturalistic worldview. Strict naturalism completely rejects any notion of the supernatural.{5} All that exists are atoms and the void.{6} If naturalists are right, it follows that miracles are indeed impossible. While strange things that we do not fully understand may sometimes occur, there must, in principle, be a naturalistic explanation for every event in the universe.

But are such naturalists right? Since my aim in this article is to explore the historicity of Jesus’ virgin birth, I will not attempt now to refute naturalism. Instead, I will simply point out that if a personal Creator God exists (and there is good evidence to believe that One does), then miracles are at least possible. For clearly, such a God might choose to intervene in His creation to bring about an effect for which there was no prior natural cause. And that is at least one way of describing a miracle.

Thus, if a personal Creator God exists, miracles are possible. And if miracles are possible, then Jesus’ virginal conception and birth are possible. And if the virgin birth is possible, then the only way we can determine if it actually occurred is by carefully examining the evidence both for and against it. Next we will continue our inquiry by looking at an ancient prophecy that some think actually foretold Christ’s virgin birth!

Didn’t Matthew Misread Isaiah?

Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was conceived through the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit while Mary was still a virgin.{7} He then goes further, however, by declaring that this miraculous event fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy in the book of Isaiah. He writes:

Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which…. means, “God with us.”{8}

Some scholars are unimpressed with Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah. John Dominic Crossan unequivocally states, “The prophecy in Isaiah says nothing whatsoever about a virginal conception.”{9} Did Matthew misread Isaiah?

Let’s acknowledge that the original context of Isaiah’s prophecy may not be exclusively about the virginal conception of Jesus. The year is 734 B.C. and King Ahaz of Judah is terrified to learn that Aram and Israel have formed an alliance against him. Isaiah is sent to reassure Ahaz that God is in control and that the aims of the alliance will not succeed. Ahaz is told to request a sign from the Lord, a means of confirming the truth of Isaiah’s message. But he refuses!{10} Annoyed at the king’s stubbornness, Isaiah declares that the Lord will give a sign anyway: an almah (a maiden of marriageable age) will conceive a son and call his name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey upon reaching an age of moral discernment. But before this happens, the land of the two dreaded kings will be forsaken.{11} Should this prophecy be understood to refer exclusively to Jesus’ virginal conception? If so, how does it relate to the promise that the Aram-Israel alliance would soon be broken and their lands forsaken (a promise fulfilled within twelve years time)?{12}

It’s quite possible that Isaiah’s prophecy had a dual fulfillment:{13} initially, in Isaiah’s day; and ultimately, at the birth of Jesus. In this view the almah, or young maiden of Isaiah’s prophecy, is a type of the virgin Mary, who later conceived Jesus through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit.{14} So although a young woman in Isaiah’s day bore a child named Immanuel, Jesus is later recognized by Matthew to also be Immanuel, “God with us” in a new and unprecedented way. Thus, Matthew didn’t misread Isaiah. And if this is so, we must continue to consider this prophecy in weighing the evidence for Jesus’ virgin birth.

But even if we’ve correctly explained Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy, we must still consider the alleged contradictions in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. We will address this issue in the next section.

Don’t Matthew and Luke Contradict Each Other?

{15} Some scholars see the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke as contradictory. If so, their historical reliability is in doubt, along with their accounts of Jesus’ virgin birth. But are these narratives really contradictory? Let’s take a closer look.

First, some think Matthew implies that Mary and Joseph resided permanently in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth, whereas Luke says they lived in Nazareth and only came to Bethlehem for the census.{16} But Matthew never actually tells us the couple’s residence before Jesus’ birth. He simply says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just like Luke.{17}

But if Mary and Joseph resided in Nazareth prior to Jesus’ birth, then why, after their flight into Egypt, does Matthew seem to suggest that they intended to return to Judea rather than their home in Nazareth?{18} It’s helpful to recall that Jesus was “the promised king of David’s line.”{19} Might not his parents, then, have wished to raise Him in His ancestral home?{20} This is actually quite probable. But regardless of their original intention, let’s not forget that Matthew goes on to write that Joseph, being warned in a dream not to settle in Judea, did take his family back to Nazareth after all.{21}

Finally, some think Luke’s narrative leaves no room for Matthew’s account about the visit of the magi and sojourn in Egypt. These events could only have occurred after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, forty days after His birth.{22} But Luke 2:39, which concludes this presentation, says that when Jesus’ parents “had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to . . . Nazareth.” This raises a question. Does Luke’s statement prohibit an initial return to Bethlehem, thus casting doubt on Matthew’s account of the magi and flight into Egypt?

It’s important to notice the emphasis in Luke 2:39. It’s not so much on when Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth, but rather that they did not return until after they had fulfilled the requirements of the Law.{23} Strictly speaking, Luke 2:39 does not disallow the events recorded by Matthew. Luke may not have known of the visit of the magi and flight into Egypt, or he may have chosen to omit this information. Either way, however, “the silence of one narrative regarding events recorded in another is quite a different thing from actual contradiction.”{24} Thus, the virgin birth cannot be dismissed on the grounds that the infancy narratives are contradictory–they’re not.

But aren’t we forgetting the most obvious hypothesis of all? Is the story of Jesus’ virgin birth simply a myth, comparable to other such stories from the ancient world? We’ll examine this question in the next section.

Wasn’t the Virgin Birth Story Derived from Pagan Myths?

Not long after Matthew and Luke finished writing their gospels, some scholars began contending that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth was derived from pagan myths. Unfortunately, such ideas continue to haunt the Church even today. John Dominic Crossan cites parallels between the deification of Octavius by the Roman Senate and that of Jesus by the early church.{25} In each case, says Crossan, the decision to deify their leader was closely connected with the invention of a divine birth story. The official biography of Octavius claimed the god Apollo in the form of a snake impregnated his mother.{26} Jesus’ biographers claimed the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary conceived Him. In Crossan’s view, neither story is historically true: “The divine origins of Jesus are…just as…mythological as those of Octavius.”{27} The stories simply help explain why these men received divine honors.

Is Crossan’s hypothesis plausible? One can certainly find scholars who embrace such ideas. But a careful comparison of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth with the many miraculous birth stories in pagan literature reveals several important differences.

First, the accounts of Jesus’ virgin birth show none “of the standard literary marks of the myth genre.”{28} Matthew and Luke are written as history–not mythology. They mention places, people, and events that can be verified through normal methods of historical and archaeological inquiry. The beginning of Luke’s gospel “reads very much like prefaces to other generally trusted historical and biographical works of antiquity.”{29} Thus, there is a clear difference in genre between the gospels and pagan myths.

Another difference can be seen in the religious atmosphere of these stories. The pagan myths are polytheistic; the gospels, monotheistic. The miraculous birth stories in pagan literature usually focus on a god’s lust for some mortal woman.{30} Since this lust is typically gratified through sexual intercourse, the resulting conception and birth are hardly virginal. We are thus far removed from the description of Jesus’ virginal conception in the gospels. There we find no hint that God’s love for Mary in any way parallels the lust of Apollo for the mother of Octavius.

These are just two of many differences between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and the miraculous birth stories in pagan literature. But even these differences make the theory of pagan derivation unlikely. Remember, this theory requires us to believe that strict moral monotheists, who claimed to be writing history, borrowed some of the crudest elements from polytheistic myths to tell the story of Jesus’ birth! Frankly, it’s incredible. But could a theory of Jewish derivation still work? We’ll conclude with this question.

Wasn’t the Virgin Birth Story Derived from Jewish Thought?

Some scholars have speculated that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth may have been derived from an imaginative Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.{31} The story is not historical; it is a literary fiction of early Jewish Christians. It may have resulted from reflection on Isaiah 7:14, which says in part, “Behold, a virgin will be with child.” What could be more natural than this verse becoming the source of inspiration for a legendary tale about the virgin birth of the Messiah?{32}

But would this really have been natural? There’s actually no clear evidence that pre-Christian Judaism understood Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of the Messiah at all, much less his virginal conception.{33} Indeed, many contend that the Hebrew text of Isaiah says nothing whatever about a virginal conception and birth.{34} But if that is so, it would seem quite unlikely for early Jewish Christians to have read the verse in such a way!

Others believe the translation of Isaiah from Hebrew to Greek, known as the Septuagint, may have provided the initial impulse for such a reading. The Greek text of Isaiah 7:14 translates the Hebrew term almah, meaning “a young woman of marriageable age,” with the Greek term parthenos, meaning “virgin”. Could this translation have led some Jewish Christians to conclude that Isaiah was prophesying the virgin birth of the Messiah? And if so, might they have invented the story of Jesus’ virgin birth as the alleged “fulfillment” of Isaiah’s prediction?

While one can claim that they might have done so, there’s no evidence that they actually did. But if not, what could account for early Christianity’s understanding of Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of the Messiah’s virgin birth? Well, the historical reality of Jesus’ virgin birth could have done so! After all, it’s one thing to think that early Jewish Christians, without any precedent in Jewish thought, would invent the story of Jesus’ virgin birth from an imaginative interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy. But it’s another thing entirely to think that by beginning with a historically reliable account of Jesus’ virgin birth, they eventually concluded that Isaiah had indeed prophesied such an event.{35}

Only the latter hypothesis is supported by evidence. Particularly important in this regard are the gospels of Matthew and Luke. These sources have been shown to be quite historically reliable. Their accounts of Jesus’ birth, though apparently written independently of one another, are free of contradiction. Indeed, apart from an unproven bias against the supernatural, there is little reason to doubt the accuracy of their reports. Thus, there do appear to be adequate grounds for believing that Jesus really was born of a virgin!

Notes

1. Such differences do not, of course, imply contradictions. See the third section for more information.

2. See Matt. 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35.

3. For instance, John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), writes, “I understand the virginal conception of Jesus to be a confessional statement about Jesus’ status and not a biological statement about Mary’s body. It is later faith in Jesus as an adult retrojected mythologically onto Jesus as an infant. . .” (23). And again a little later, “Jesus . . . was born . . . to Joseph and Mary.” (26)

4. For example, in Paul Copan, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), 61, Dr. Craig questions Dr. Crossan about his anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions and whether they do not rule out the possibility of miracles a priori. Dr. Crossan admits that, insofar as miracles are concerned, “[I]t’s a theological presupposition of mine that God does not operate that way.”

5. Ibid. In fact, although it is difficult to pin him down this appears to be Dr. Crossan’s position. At one point in the debate, Dr. Craig asks Dr. Crossan, “What about the statement that God exists? Is that a statement of faith or fact?” Dr. Crossan responds, “It’s a statement of faith for all those who make it” (49). But suppose no human beings existed to make such statements of faith. In order to clarify Dr. Crossan’s response, Dr. Craig later asks, “Was there a being who was the Creator and Sustainer of the universe during that period of time when no human beings existed?” Dr. Crossan’s answer is quite revealing: “Well, I would probably prefer to say no because what you’re doing is trying to put yourself in the position of God and ask…’How is God apart from faith?’ I don’t know if you can do that. You can do it, I suppose, but I don’t know if it really has any point” (emphasis mine, 51). This answer appears to commit Dr. Crossan to an atheistic (and thus strictly naturalistic) worldview.

6. So said the famous Greek atomist philosopher, Democritus of Abdera.

7. See Matt. 1:20-25.

8. Matt. 1:22-23.

9. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 17. He goes on to say, “Clearly, somebody went seeking in the Old Testament for a text that could be interpreted as prophesying a virginal conception, even if such was never its original meaning”(18).

10. See Isaiah 7:1-12.

11. See Isaiah 7:13-16.

12. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978). Ryrie comments, “Within twelve years after this prophecy, Damascus was captured by Assyria (732) and Israel had fallen (722).” (1024)

13. Although some writers object to the notion of a “dual fulfillment” of prophecy, there appear to be other examples of this phenomenon in Scripture. For instance, in Joel 2:28-32 we find a promise of a future outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The prophecy is linked with various cosmic disturbances that will immediately precede the Day of the Lord. Later, in connection with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter declares, “This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel” (v. 16). He proceeds to quote almost the entire passage of Joel 2:28-32. However, it seems that only the first part of the prophecy, concerning the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, was actually fulfilled in Peter’s day. What’s more, the book of Revelation seems to indicate that the cosmic disturbances mentioned by Joel await a yet future fulfillment (see Rev. 6:12). While scholars have offered various solutions to account for Peter’s use of Joel in Acts 2, it seems best to understand Joel’s prophecy as having some sort of “dual fulfillment”: an initial fulfillment on the day of Pentecost; an ultimate fulfillment before the second coming of Christ. The “dual fulfillment” view has the advantage of preserving the original integrity of the prophet’s message, while at the same time recognizing that some prophecies may be Divinely intended to include more than one fulfillment throughout salvation history. In light of this very real possibility, we should humbly acknowledge that Matthew’s use of Isaiah and Peter’s use of Joel confront us with complex interpretive issues. It is partly for this reason that very capable scholars reach different conclusions about the meaning of these passages. After careful consideration I was inclined toward the “dual fulfillment” position; however, I recognize that others will want to adopt some other perspective.

14. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, 1024.

15. In this section I have relied heavily on the analysis given in J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971), 192-97.

16. I have chosen to examine some of the more difficult “contradictions.” But it’s important to point out that some of the alleged difficulties are quite easily dealt with. For instance, Luke records that shepherds visited the baby Jesus in response to an angelic announcement (Luke 2:8-20). Matthew, however, tells not of shepherds but of magi, who responded not to an angelic announcement, but to an astronomical observation (Matt. 2:1-12). But surely there’s no contradiction here. After all, it’s entirely possible that both the shepherds and the magi visited Jesus! Doubtless the accounts are selective and have not recorded every detail, but this does not mean they are contradictory.

17. Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:1-7.

18. Matt. 2:19-23.

19. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 193.

20. Ibid.

21. Matt. 2:22-23.

22. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 196, explains: “The visit of the magi could hardly have taken place during this forty-day interval; for it would have been impossible to take the child into the Temple when the wrath of the king was so aroused…Evidently, therefore, the flight into Egypt took place immediately after the magi had come; no visit to the Temple could have intervened. If, therefore, the two narratives are to be harmonized, we must suppose that when the presentation in the Temple had been completed, Joseph and Mary returned with the child to Bethlehem, received there the visit of the magi, and then fled into Egypt.”

23. Ibid., 196-97.

24. Ibid., 197.

25. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 1-5, 26-28.

26. Peter Jennings, interview with John Dominic Crossan, “The Search for Jesus,” ABC Special, June 26, 2000. More general information about this ABC special program can be found at the following URL: http://more.abcnews.go.com/onair/abcnewsspecials/pjr000626_jesus_promo.html. A conservative, evangelical response to Peter Jennings’ ABC special was done by John Ankerberg, “A Response to ABC’s The Search for Jesus: Part 1: Questions About His Birth,” The John Ankerberg Show (videotape copy), 2001. More general information can be found at John Ankerberg’s Web site at: www.ankerberg.com.

27. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 26-27.

28. Norman L. Geisler, “Virgin Birth of Christ,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 763.

29. Craig Blomberg, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 39-40.

30. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 338.

31. This might be referred to as midrash, or midrash pesher, which “is an imaginative interpretation or expansion based on some OT text.” B. Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 60.

32. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 287.

33. Witherington, “Birth of Jesus,” 64. See also Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 297.

34. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 288. See also, John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 17.

35. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 286-87.

©2001 Probe Ministries.


The Uniqueness of Jesus

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?

A serious study of the Gospels leads a person to one of three conclusions about Jesus: He was (1) an evil lying villain, (2) a preposterously deluded madman, or (3) the Messiah, the Son of God. It is ludicrous for anyone who has studied His life to take the position that He was simply a good teacher. Only one of the three conclusions is a logical possibility.

Jesus made some outrageous claims no ordinary person would dare to make. First, He claimed to be God. His statements of equality with God meant He believed that He possessed the authority, attributes, and adoration belonging to God. He proclaimed authority over creation, forgiveness of sins, and life and death. He declared to possess the attributes of God. He emphatically stated that He was the source of truth and the only way to eternal life. Only Jesus among the significant leaders of history made such claims.

Here are a few of His outrageous claims. When “Philip said, Lord, show us the Father.’ Jesus answered. . . .Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8-9). Once, when the Pharisees were disparaging Jesus and challenging Him, Jesus responded, ” I and the Father are one.’ Again the Jews picked up stones to stone Him, but Jesus said to them, I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ We are not stoning you for any of these,’ replied the Jews, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God’” (John 10:30-33). It is clear in these two statements, Jesus claimed to be God. His opponents clearly understood His declaration of equality with God.

When challenged by the scholars on His authority over Abraham, the father of the Jews, Jesus replied, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.’ The Jews said to Him, You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!’ I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, before Abraham was born, I am!’” (John 8:56-58). Jesus clearly believed He had existed two thousand years earlier and knew Abraham.

On the issue of life and death Jesus stated, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). Here He believed He had authority over life and death.

Finally, Jesus accepted and encouraged others to worship Him. Throughout the Gospels the disciples worshiped Jesus as seen in Matthew 14:33 and John 9:38. Jesus states in John 5:22-23, “Moreover, the Father judges no one but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him.” Jesus knew the Old Testament command “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only” (Matt. 4:10). Despite this, Jesus encouraged others to worship Him. Either He was mad (insane), or He was who He claimed to be and deserves our worship as God incarnate.

After reading such claims, it is impossible for anyone to say He was merely a good teacher. A man making claims like these must either be a diabolical liar, insane, or God incarnate. For the remainder of this essay we will be discussing which of these conclusions is most plausible.

A Villain, A Madman, or God Incarnate?

We have established at this point that Jesus made some astounding claims about himself. He presumed to be God, claimed the authority and attributes of God, and encouraged others to worship Him as God. If, however, Jesus was a liar, then He knew His message was false but was willing to deceive thousands with claims He knew were untrue. That is, Jesus knew that He was not God, He did not know the way to eternal life, and He died and sent thousands to their deaths for a message He knew was a lie. This would make Jesus history’s greatest villain (and perhaps, a demon) for teaching this wicked lie. He would have also been history’s greatest fool for it was these claims that lead Him to His death.

Few, if any, seriously hold to this position. Even the skeptics unanimously agree that He was at least a great moral teacher. William Lecky, one of Britain’s most respected historians and an opponent of Christianity writes, “It was reserved for Christianity to present the world an ideal character which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love.”{1}

However, it would be inconsistent and illogical to believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher if some of those teachings contained immoral lies about himself. He would have to be a stupendous hypocrite to teach others honesty and virtue and all the while preach the lie that He was God. It is inconceivable to think that such deceitful, selfish, and depraved acts could have issued forth from the same being who otherwise maintained from the beginning to the end the purest and noblest character known in history.

Since the liar conclusion is not logical, let us assume He really believed He was God but was mistaken. If He truly believed He had created the world, had seen Abraham two thousand years before, and had authority over death, and yet none of this was true, we can only conclude that He was mad or insane.

However, when you study the life of Jesus, He clearly does not display the characteristics of insanity. The abnormality and imbalance we find in a deranged person are not there. His teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, remain one of the greatest works ever recorded. Jesus was continually challenged by the Pharisees and lawyers, highly educated men whose modern day equivalent would be our university professors. They were fluent in several languages and were known for their scholarship of the Old Testament and Jewish law. They challenged Jesus with some of the most profound questions of their day and Jesus’ quick answers amazed and silenced them. In the face of tremendous pressure, we find He exemplified the greatest composure.

For these reasons, the lunatic argument is not consistent. If both the liar and the lunatic options are not consistent with the facts, we must take a serious look at the third option: that Jesus was really God. The next question is, does He prove to have the credentials of God? Let us investigate this possibility.

Messianic Prophecy

Thus far we have learned that Jesus is unique among all men for the profound statements He made about His divinity. We concluded that it is impossible to state He was simply a good moral teacher. From His amazing statements, He must be a liar, a lunatic, or God. Since the first two were not conceivable, we will begin looking at the third alternative, that He really is God. First, we must see if He had the credentials for these claims.

One of the most incredible types of evidence is the testimony of prophecy. The Old Testament contains a number of messianic prophecies made centuries before Christ appeared on the earth. The fact that He fulfilled each one is powerful testimony that He was no ordinary man. Allow me to illustrate this point using eight prophecies.

• Genesis 12:1-3 states the Messiah would come from the seed of Abraham.

• Genesis 49:10 states that He would be of the tribe of Judah.

• 2 Samuel 7:12 states that Messiah would be of the line of King David.

• Micah 5:2 states that He would be born in the city of Bethlehem.

• Daniel 9:24 states He would die or be “cut off” exactly 483 years after the declaration to reconstruct the temple in 444 B.C.

• Isaiah 53 states that the Messiah would die with thieves, then be buried in a richman’s tomb.

• Psalm 22:16 states upon His death His hands and His feet would be pierced. This is quite significant since Roman crucifixion had not been invented at the time the Psalmist was writing.

• Isaiah 49:7 states that Messiah would be known and hated by the entire nation. Not many men become known by their entire nation, and even less are despised by the entire nation.

Now calculate the possibility of someone fulfilling these by coincidence. Let us suppose you estimate there is a one in a hundred chance a man could fulfill just one of these prophecies by chance. That would mean when all eight are put together there is a 1/10 to the 16th power probability that they were fulfilled by chance. Mathematician Peter Stoner estimates 1/10 to the 17th power possibility that these prophecies were fulfilled by chance.{2} Mathematicians have estimated that the possibility of sixteen of these prophecies being fulfilled by chance are about 1/10 to the 45th power.{3} That’s a decimal point followed by 44 zeroes and a 1! These figures show it is extremely improbable that these prophecies could have been fulfilled by accident. The figures for fulfillment of the 109 major prophecies are staggering.{4}

Skeptics have objected to the testimony of prophecy, stating they were written after the times of Jesus and therefore fulfill themselves. However, the evidence overwhelmingly shows these prophecies were clearly written centuries before Christ. It is an established fact even by liberal scholars that the Old Testament canon was completed by 450 B.C. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was completed in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus in 250 B.C. The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1948 contained the books of the Old Testament. Prophetic books like Isaiah were dated by paleographers to be written in 100 B.C.{5} Once again, these prophecies were confirmed to have been written centuries before Christ, and no religious leader has fulfilled anything close to the number of prophecies Jesus has fulfilled.

Confirmation of Miracles

Jesus made some profound statements about His divinity. We concluded that it is impossible to state He was simply a good moral teacher. From His amazing statements we must conclude Him to be a liar, a lunatic, or God. Since the first two were not conceivable, we began looking at the third alternative. If this is true, we must see if He has the credentials for His claims.

If a person claimed to be God, we would expect supernatural confirmations. We’ve already discovered the phenomenal record of prophecy. We would also expect Him to demonstrate authority over nature, sickness, truth, sin, and death. Jesus demonstrated such authority. One line of evidence is seen in His miraculous deeds.

Jesus’ miracles demonstrated His power over creation, sickness, and death. He demonstrated His authority over nature in such miracles as walking on water (Matt. 14:25), multiplying bread (Matt. 14:15-21), and calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41). He demonstrated authority over sickness with His instantaneous healings over terminal diseases. His healings did not take weeks or days but were instantaneous. He healed blindness (John 9), paralysis (Mark 2), leprosy (Luke 17), and deafness (Mark 7). Such miracles cannot be attributed to psychosomatic healing but to one who rules over creation. Jesus displayed authority over death by raising the dead as recorded in Luke 7 and Matthew 9.

Some doubt whether these miracles occurred. Several view the miracle accounts as fictitious legends developed after the death of Christ. Philosopher David Hume argued that human nature tends to gossip and exaggerate the truth. Others argue that the miracle accounts were propagated in distant lands by the followers of Christ well after the events so that the miracle accounts could not have been verified due to distance and time.

There are several arguments against these attacks. First, the Bible has proven to be a historically reliable document. For more information on this, see the Authority of the Bible article. Second, legends and exaggerations develop when followers travel to distant lands well after the time of the events and tell of stories which cannot be confirmed. Legends usually develop generations after the death of the figure at which time it is impossible to verify any of the accounts since all available witnesses are not available. However, the miracle accounts of Jesus were being told in the very cities in which they occurred during the lifetime of Jesus and to those who witnessed the event(s). Those who witnessed the miracles were followers of Christ and His enemies. These eye witnesses were questioned carefully by those in authority. If any claims were exaggerated or distorted, it could have easily been refuted. The New Testament with its miracle accounts could not have survived had not the accounts been true.

German scholar Dr. Carsten Theide and British scholar Dr. Matthew D’Ancona in their book Eyewitness to Jesus state their conclusion after a scientific investigation of a fragment from the Gospel of Matthew. The scientific evidence revealed that the book was written before A.D. 70, possibly as early as A.D. 30.{6} This reveals the fact that the Gospels were written and circulated during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, who were then able to judge the accuracy of such accounts, and they were unable to refute Jesus’ miracles. None of the world’s religious leaders performed the miracles Jesus did.

Authority Over Death

A study of the claims of Jesus make it clear that He was professing to be God. It is then impossible to conclude that He was merely a good teacher. In light of these claims, one must conclude that He is a liar, a lunatic, or He is Lord. We investigated to see if His claim to be God was substantiated. Clearly the record of prophecy proved there was something unique about Him. The miracles He performed remain unequaled by anyone, but Jesus’ greatest demonstration of authority is revealed in His power over sin and death.

There are many religions and religious leaders who claim to know what lies beyond the grave. The problem is, no one has demonstrated authority over the grave or confirmed their belief of what happens after death. Only Jesus demonstrated authority over death. All men have died, but Jesus is alive.

During His three-year ministry, Jesus exercised His authority over death by raising several people from the grave. Most notable is the account of Lazarus found in John 11. Here even in the face of His enemies, Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave. If this were not a historical account, this story would not have survived since it was recorded and propagated in the very city where it occurred, in the lifetime of the witnesses, both followers and enemies of Christ. The enemies of Christianity could have easily refuted the account if it were not true. The fact is they could not refute it.

In regard to His own death and resurrection, the Old Testament predicted the death of the Messiah in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. However, it also predicts the resurrection in Psalm 16:8 11 and refers to the eternal reign of the Messiah. The only way to reconcile these verses is a resurrected Messiah.

Jesus himself made these predictions in regard to His resurrection: “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19). In Mark 8:31 Jesus taught “that the son of Man must suffer many things . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again.” In John 10:18 Jesus states, “I have authority to lay it (My life) down, and I have authority to take it up again.” In these passages, Jesus predicts His own death and resurrection. Either Jesus was mad, or He really had the authority over death.

Jesus’ resurrection proved His authority over sin and death. For a more detailed defense of the historicity of the Resurrection, check the Probe perspective on the Resurrection titled, Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?

At the beginning of this study we examined the claims of Christ. We realized only three conclusions were possible: liar, lunatic, or Lord. Since the first two were inconceivable, we needed to see if Christ could further confirm His credentials of being God. We discovered that His claims were confirmed by the record of prophecy, His miracles, and the Resurrection.

Jesus proves himself to be unique among all men.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure for much of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever sailed, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as this “One Solitary Life.”{7}

Notes


1. William Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (New York: D.Appleton and Company, 1903), p. 8.
2. Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernadino, Calif.: Here’s Life Publishers, 1979), p. 167.
3. Norman Geisler, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, Ill.:Victor Press, 1990), p. 116.
4. Tim LaHaye, Jesus, Who is He? (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1996), p. 176.
5. Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), pp. 365-66.
6. Peter Carsten Theide and Matthew D’Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1996), p. 163.
7. Anonymous, “One Solitary Life,” quoted in Tim LaHaye, Jesus, Who is He?, p. 68.

Bibliography

1. Craig, William Lane. Apologetics: An Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.

2. Geisler, Norman. When Skeptics Ask. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Press, 1990.

3. Geisler, Norman, & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.

4. Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1902.

5. LaHaye, Tim. Jesus, Who Is He? Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1996.

6. Lecky, William. History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1903. Page 8.

7. Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1960.

8. Little, Paul. Know Why You Believe. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

9. Nash, Ronald. Faith and Reason. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing, 1988.

10. McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. San Bernadino, Calif.: Here’s Life Publishers, 1979.

11. Stott, John. Basic Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 1971.

12. Theide, Peter Carsten, and D’Ancona, Matthew. Eyewitness to Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

13. Walvoord, John. Prophecy Knowledge Handbook. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Press, 1990.

©2000 Probe Ministries.


Cruci-Fiction and Resuscitation

A paid advertisement in a campus newspaper declaring Christ’s resurrection a hoax was deeply disturbing to its readers. This essay raises 9 problems with the ad and answers them.

This article is also available in Spanish.

The title used above was the headline of a paid advertisement in a campus newspaper from a major university. Allegedly written by a university student named “Daniel,” the ad appeared as a result of Resurrection Week on that campus in the spring of 1997.

I received a copy of the ad in a letter from a long-time friend of my son. He was angry, confused, and scared by the article. He opened his letter by saying, “This is one of the most upsetting articles that I have ever read. This paid advertisement’ has contradicted everything that I believe in. It makes a mockery out of the way I have chosen to pattern my life. It even frightens me.”

In this essay we are going to address the misleading statements and half-truths found in the article. A few days after receiving this correspondence, I took the article and broke it down into nine significant errors or issues raised by the author. My procedure will be quote each half-truth or misleading statement, then address it.

I do not presume that this brief treatment will completely answer all of the objections raised by the “paid advertisement,” but these thoughts were a great help to my son’s friend as he took a deeper look at his faith. I trust that they will be equally helpful to you.

Christian Scholars and the Bible

Problem #1

“Have you ever wondered why so many biblical experts are so skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection’ and why even a growing number of Christian scholars and theologians are heard saying that his resurrection is not so central to Christianity” (“Cruci-fiction”).

It appears that Daniel is only interested in going to those “biblical experts” and “Christian scholars” that support his position. It is no secret that there are a number of Christian scholars who hold a low view of the Bible and the deity of Christ, i.e., they do not believe in the veracity or trustworthiness of the Scriptures or the deity of Christ.

They very often question not only the deity of Christ and His resurrection, but also the Trinity, His uniqueness as a Savior, and His second coming. They also tend to discount hell as a place for eternal damnation and consider sin as only a mistake. They see guilt as being of no consequence because it is imposed on humanity by those who would enforce a strict moral code of conduct.

Daniel’s comment about Christian scholars and theologians not considering the resurrection of Jesus being of any real importance is a ridiculous notion that denigrates the uniqueness of Jesus and ultimately places Him on the same plane as Buddha, Krishna, or any other “holy man” in history. Jesus is totally unique and that distinct difference is based on His resurrection in bodily form. Without the Resurrection, there is no salvation for we are still in our sin.

Next, we will look at Daniel’s assumption that there were tens and possibly hundreds of “gospels” in existence at the time the church selectively chose the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as a basis for understanding God’s truth, along with his assertion that the Apostle Paul fabricated these writings to alter the truth.

Numerous Gospels

Problem #2

Now we are going to look at the question of the canon: just where did the Bible come from and how can we know that it is trustworthy?

Our antagonist, Daniel, continues by making this statement:

“Since preachers have often failed to inform the people of what really happened in events surrounding the so called resurrection,’ I will make an attempt to give the most possible accurate picture. Our information source will be the four surviving gospels even though they have been carefully selected by the Church from a pool of a multitude of gospels’ tens, possibly hundreds. . . . The four surviving gospels were edited and corrected over time to best fit the doctrines worked out earlier by Paul” (“Cruci-fiction”).

There is no doubt that there were a number of “gospels” circulating during and after the first century. But, Daniel’s problem is that he does not have an understanding of how the Bible was canonized. There were several ways various writings were judged to be authentic. If they failed in any one area, they were suspect overall.

First, for a gospel or other book to be considered authentic by the early church, the author must have been an Apostle, one who had been with Jesus during His ministry.

Remember that Jesus promised His disciples the Holy Spirit would enable them to remember His teachings so that they could communicate them accurately to others. He said to the Apostles, “These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 16:25-26). Jesus, who is absolutely reliable, believed that what the disciples wrote about Him would be just as true as if He wrote it Himself. That means that it would be historically accurate.

Second, the book had to be authoritative. Did it come from the hand of God? The previous passage indicates that a genuine message from God would come through the Holy Spirit.

Third, is it prophetic? Was it written by a man of God?

Fourth, is it authentic? When in doubt about a manuscript, the Church fathers threw it out.

Fifth, is it dynamic? Did it contain the life-transforming power of God?

Sixth, was the book received and used by the people and considered to be authentic and authoritative?

Daniel uses Irenaeus as a source for the idea of tens, even hundreds, of possible gospels circulating in the first century and subtly implies that he (Irenaeus) questioned their authenticity out of hand. However, we know that Irenaeus, according to historical documentation, gave credence to the four Gospels of the Bible.

Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, had been a Christian for eighty-six years, and was a disciple of John the Apostle. Irenaeus wrote the following regarding the four Gospels of the New Testament:

So firm is the ground upon which the Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these (documents), each one of them endeavors to establish his own particular doctrine. For as there are four quarters of the world in which we live, and four universal winds, and as the Church dispersed over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and base of the Church and the breath of life, so it is natural that it should have four pillars, breathing immortality from every quarter and kindling the life of men anew. Whence it is manifest that the Word, the architect of all things, who sits upon the cherubim and holds all things together, having been manifested to men, has given us the gospel in fourfold form, but held together by one Spirit (Against Heresies III).

It seems as if Irenaeus would probably differ with Daniel on this count.

The latter part of Daniel’s statement, “The four surviving gospels were edited and corrected over time to best fit the doctrines worked out earlier by Paul” holds no water as well.

Daniel makes it seem that Paul was the official editor of the New Testament and that nothing made the canon unless he approved of its inclusion.

Daniel seems to overlook the fact that the books of the Bible were decided upon by Church Councils and not individuals. Plus, there is an overwhelming amount of manuscript evidence to help the inquiring student to recognize that there was no wholesale editing of the Gospels. (For more information on this, see the Probe article Are the Biblical Documents Reliable?)

Remember these manuscripts were being used daily by the Church and those using the Scripture were contemporaries of Paul. If, in fact, he had edited or distorted the writings of the Apostles, he would have had his hand called (see Acts 17:10-11) and would have been ostracized. The fact is, it didn’t happen.

Crucifixion and Prophecies

Problem #3 Next, our antagonist, Daniel, questions the fact that Jesus really died on the cross and makes this statement regarding the event.

“In order to speed up death of the crucified , he ordered the soldiers to break the legs of both criminals, but not those of Jesus” (“Cruci-fiction”).

It appears that Daniel is not familiar with prophecy and, in particular, those prophecies relating to Jesus’ death. Psalms 34:20 says, “He keeps all his bones; Not one of them is broken.” The fulfillment of this prophecy is found in John 19:33 where it is said, “But coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.”

The Romans were not novices when it came to crucifixion and death. They knew a dead person when they saw one. It seems that Daniel cannot accept this possibility.

Problem #4

“But one soldier thrust a lance into his side. How can one see that a person is dead without a careful close inspection of signs of life as heartbeat and breathing? How many times are people pulled from water, fires, car wrecks who appear to be dead, but then are resurrected?’ And if the soldier saw that Jesus was dead, why the lancing? No reason for it.

 

“Moreover, Romans never lanced the crucified. If the soldier did not get special orders from Pilate and if he was only a bit suspicious that Jesus was alive (as he had all reasons to be), he would have broken Jesus’ legs like anyone else’s, no preferential treatment. It seems that the lancing (was) observed only by a mysterious anonymous witness” (“Cruci-fiction”).

Once again Daniel is allowing his bias to overtake his lack of understanding of the prophecies surrounding the Crucifixion

Zechariah 12:10 says, “They will look on me whom they have pierced.”

John 19:34 offers the fulfillment of this prophecy. It reads, “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear.”

Daniel is caught up with the notion that Jesus did not die on the cross, but seemed to have fainted and was resuscitated at a later time, thereby ignoring some basic facts regarding the death of Christ. There is no record that any of the onlookers questioned the fact of Jesus’ death; also the centurion gave testimony of the death of Jesus to Pilate (Mark 15:44).

Furthermore, the piercing of His side confirmed that Jesus was indeed dead. But, equally important is the fact that from the wound came both blood and water. John 19:34 35 gives us an eyewitness account of the effect of the piercing. We read that blood and water poured from the wound, but had Jesus been alive at the time of the piercing, strong spurts of blood would have come forth with every heartbeat. Instead, we are told that a semi-dark red clot was seeping out and was separate from a flow of watery serum. These signs are evidence of massive clotting of the blood in the main arteries and, therefore, proof of death.

Problem #5

Next in our analysis of Christ’s crucifixion, we are going to deal with several problems about which our antagonist, Daniel, attempts to create doubt. In doing so, we catch Daniel using poor logic to make his case against the Resurrection.

Daniel continues by observing that the lancing of Jesus was “observed only by a mysterious anonymous witness which appears only in John’s gospel (and) was the author’s initiative to correct the previously written three gospels which did not document any such lancing” (“Cruci-fiction”).

Each of the gospel writers had different interests: Matthew was a tax-collector; Mark was the son of Mary and close to the Apostles; Luke was a physician; and John was a fisherman. Each of these men likewise had a different perspective in their Gospel narrative. Luke, although he was a physician, wrote his Gospel as a historical account. John offers the reader no account of the birth of Jesus, His baptism, or His temptations; it tells us nothing of the Last Supper, nothing of Gethsemane, and nothing of the Ascension, to name just a few omissions.

However, if we are to use Daniel’s logic we would have to discount all these facts because they were not mentioned in all four Gospels that “survived the editing of Paul.”

Genealogies of Christ

Problem #6

“When Matthew and Luke were independently editing the earlier Mark’s gospel, they knew that its contemporary critics pointed out that the Messiah must come from David’s line and Mark did not mention Jesus’ genealogy. So each made up his own list of names” (“Cruci-fiction”).

Here, Daniel seems to be a bit lazy. Instead of doing a little research to gain an understanding of Jesus’ lineage, he simply makes the comment that each writer just made it up to suit his own wishes.

In Judaism a man’s lineage was his pedigree. It was a matter of high regard for a Jew to have direct lineage from Abraham, thereby proving his Jewishness. The Gospel writers had different reasons for including Jesus’ pedigree.

As Daniel points out, the genealogies given by Matthew and Luke are quite different. There are several possibilities for this occurrence.

Luke includes the genealogy between Adam and Abraham. The section between Abraham and David is the same in both Matthew and Luke. However, the genealogies between David and Joseph are almost completely different. Why is this?

One school of thought is that both genealogies are symbolic and that Matthew gives us the line of royal descent of Jesus and Luke gives us the line of priestly descent.

Another school of thought is that one genealogy (Matthew’s) gives Christ’s ancestral line from Abraham through Joseph (Jesus’ legal father, though not His natural one) establishing Jesus’ legal right to the throne of David. This fits the Jewishness of the Gospel of Matthew. The second part of this approach is that the genealogy in Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry from Mary (Jesus’ physical mother) back to Adam (physical father of the human race). (There are some minor concerns about the spelling of some names in this genealogy, but this seems to be the best answer.) It is also very compatible with the universal character of the book of Luke.

The fact is that we do not fully know which genealogical approach is more correct. However, we do know that genealogies were extremely important to the Jews and the idea of making them up is preposterous and would have been exposed.

Our next discussion will center on the claim that Jesus did not die on the cross, but only swooned.

Burial of Christ

Problem #7

“Thus Jesus was taken off the cross after approximately three hours by Joseph of Arimathea and was buried on his property in his new tomb that he (Joseph) had hewn in the rock.’ Why there? Why didn’t Joseph bury Jesus in the ground as most people were buried, but instead he put him into his own tomb? Because in the ground Jesus would have certainly suffocated. Moreover, Joseph knew that he would be able to reuse the tomb in the future” (“Cruci-fiction”).

It is true that the Romans normally buried those who were crucified in a pit unless the body was claimed. The body of Jesus was not claimed by a family member or by one of the disciples. They were evidently too scared and feared the possible outcome of doing so. It was Joseph of Arimathea who desired a more appropriate resting place for the body of the Lord.

Joseph realized that he had to move quickly in order to accomplish his goal of burial because the Sabbath was close. There was no time for elaborate preparations, and Joseph did what any other believer would have done he made his newly hewn sepulcher available to our Lord.

The tomb was in close proximity to Golgotha and spared Joseph and Nicodemus the trouble of preparing a burial site along with the need to prepare the body.

Problem #8

“What would you do in Joseph’s place knowing Jesus had only been on the cross three hours and had not had his legs broken? Exactly what Joseph did. Once dark settled, he took several of his servants and unrolled the stone to get Jesus out. According to all expectations, Jesus was alive, so Joseph got him out and rolled the stone back. Only the next day did the Pharisees realize their mistake and asked Pilate to guard the tomb, by which time Jesus was resting in Joseph’s house” (“Cruci-fiction”).

On the surface this argument sounds plausible. However, it does not take into account the fact that Joseph fully believed and recognized that Jesus was indeed dead. If he were to follow through, as Daniel suggests, by removing the stone and taking Jesus to his home for recuperation, he would have been directly disobeying Jewish law.

Jewish law prohibited a Jew from working on the Sabbath. They had very strict ideas about what comprised work. It is highly unlikely that Joseph would have risked the penalty for breaking the Sabbath for removing a body that he believed was dead. For what purpose? To risk the penalty of death for breaking the Sabbath?

According to scholars, the stone that was placed at the entrance of the tomb was not only larger than what would normally be used, but one that would take twenty men to move. Beyond the above, if Joseph did return with twenty men to remove the stone and release Jesus, it would be most unlikely that it could have been kept secret. It is untenable to think that such a conspiracy would have succeeded.

Likewise, it is ludicrous to suggest that after the Roman guard was posted and the tomb sealed, that evidence of tampering–should someone be so foolhardy as to try it–would have escaped the notice of the highly trained Roman soldiers. They knew the penalty for failure was death.

Problem #9

“Next we are told that after Sabbath was over women came to the tomb. Why? To anoint the body with spices as Mark 16:1 says? No! It is not a Jewish custom to open graves and anoint corpses which have already been buried and which have been fermenting for two days!” (“Cruci-fiction”).

Here Daniel is correct. However he does not take into account the special circumstances under which Jesus was interred.

Under normal conditions a body would have been properly prepared with ample time in which to complete the task. Joseph and Nicodemus had very little time to accomplish their duty before the Sabbath restrictions were imposed. The women sitting at the preparation site saw that the process was incomplete according to their custom and subsequently desired to prepare the body in the proper way. Therefore, they made plans to return after the Sabbath and finish the process by anointing the body with sweet spices, nard, or some costly unguent.

Perhaps the most damaging piece of information to Daniel’s hypothesis is the fact that the grave clothes were left undisturbed in the place where the body was laid. The body of Jesus was wrapped from the armpits to the ankles with strips of linen twelve inches wide. The linen wraps were then wound around the body placing spices, aloes, and other fine ointments between the wraps. It is believed that a minimum of seventy pounds of spices were used in the process and as much as a hundred pounds were used for someone of Jesus’ position.

The grave clothes constituted quite a mass encasing the body. If we are to assume Daniel’s position that Joseph and several of his servants took the body, we would expect that they were concerned about being detected. Therefore, they would have likely been in a great hurry, and we should expect that the grave clothes would have been left in great disarray with spices trailing out the doorway, not to mention that it would have been difficult to have placed the grave clothes neatly back on the resting place in the dark while being in a great hurry to do so.

However, the observers did not find spices and wrappings trailing out of the doorway. The grave clothes were intact, undisturbed with the exception of the head napkin that was placed slightly above where it should have been found.

John R. W. Stott in his book, Basic Christianity, makes this observation: “The body had disappeared. It would have vaporized, being transmuted into something new and different and wonderful. It would have passed through the grave clothes, as it was later to pass through closed doors, leaving them untouched and almost undisturbed. For the body clothes, under the weight of one hundred pounds of spices, once support of the body had been removed, would have subsided or collapsed, and would now be lying flat.”

The grave clothes represent an undeniable fact: Jesus was not bodily or physically removed from their bondage, but He was indeed raised, transmuted from them in the glorious act of the Resurrection.

©1998 Probe Ministries.