Central to Christianity is the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Most religions can trace their origin back to a person. But generally that person is not significant except for their teachings. Who and what they were, or even if they existed, is really not all that important. Jesus is different though. He is more significant for who he was and what he did, than for what he taught. And as a result, who he was is of vital importance to us.
Did he even exist?
While most people will acknowledge that Jesus actually existed, there are those who will claim just the opposite, that Jesus never existed, that he was a legend, an invention of the actual founders of Christianity. In support of this claim they will say that there are no contemporary, non-Christian, writings, those from the first half of the 1st century, that mention Jesus; and very little from the second half of that century or the next. If there was someone wandering around the Roman world raising the dead, healing the sick and feeding multitudes, surely someone would have taken notice and written about it. But apart from Christian sources, there are no records, whether official or not, that make any mention of Jesus or his miracles. The claim they make is that there is no way the Jesus of the New Testament could have existed, doing what is claimed of him, without wider mention being made of him. Therefore he did not exist, at least not as he is pictured in the New Testament.
But this assumes a first century world that is similar to ours today, in particular the western world. In our world of instant communication and insatiable curiosity, little happens that does not make it onto the evening news or the papers. Books are written about every conceivable subject and event, past, present or future. It is inconceivable to us that a polarizing miracle worker in the Middle East who is killed and comes back to life, and who claims to be God, would not be widely known across the whole world and written up in a multitude of books and TV documentaries.
But the first century Roman world did not have instant communications. It took a significant amount of time for information to circulate. Jesus did not live in a place that was the center of much of the world’s attention, but rather a backwater Roman province that few cared about, other than as a place to avoid. And there were no publishers roaming around looking for people to write books about any conceivable topic. Writing was a very manual effort, reproduction of that writing was very tedious and expensive, and many people did not even read. To the Romans, the most significant person in Judea during the time of Jesus was Pilate, the Roman governor. Yet even he is just barely known from non-Christian sources. Is it any wonder that Jesus, an itinerant Jewish rabbi, who taught mostly in the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea for 3 years, was not recognized outside of the local area?
Did he bear any resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament
If the skeptic is willing to accept that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth, the next objection they will generally throw out is that he likely bore little resemblance to the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament. They may accept that he was a Jewish rabbi with a local following who was killed by the Roman and Jewish authorities. But then they will claim that the Gospels were written so much later that they cannot be considered accurate portrayals of his life, and are instead reflective of the legends that had grown up around him. Even with an early dating of the gospels, in the 50’s and 60’s, they will claim that the 20 to 30 years that transpired between his life and its recording was more than enough to dim memories and add numerous embellishments during repeated oral transmission of his life and teachings.
But is 20 to 30 years enough time for established legends to arise, legends that bear little resemblance to reality? Unless the legends are intentionally developed by those who had first hand experience with Jesus, it is hard to see how they could. As long as there are surviving witnesses, who are truthful, there will always be a counter to any legends that are bending the truth. While some small details may be obscured, in general the telling of his life and teachings should stay in sync with who and what he actually was. It would take multiple generations of story tellers, or an intentional attempt by a core group, to substantially change the story.
The only records of Jesus life and teachings that come out of the first century are the 4 gospels that are included in our New Testament. While these gospels have some minor differences in detail concerning Jesus life and teaching, they are generally in harmony. Indeed, three of them seem to share common sources, and would be expected to be in agreement. But while the fourth gospel is very different in content and style, it still describes the same Jesus. It is only when you get to the second or third centuries that you start to see ‘gospels’ that paint a different picture of Jesus. And these gospels are seldom in agreement with each other, and seem to be unknown by the church at large, even during the time of their writing, making them highly suspect.
If so, what claims did he and his followers make about himself?
I believe it is safe to assume that Jesus did indeed exist as a real life Jewish rabbi from the first century. I believe it is also accurate to claim that the Gospel records are an accurate reflection of who he and his followers believed him to be. But just what is it that they believed about who Jesus was?
According to the Gospel records, and the other New Testament writings, Jesus is clearly portrayed as God himself in human form. This is actually a pretty incredible claim, especially by a Jew, either about themselves or someone else. It was a claim that was punishable by death and would go against everything they believed or held to. It is highly unlikely that a group of Jews would attempt to start a new religion, or even build on an existing one, using something as inflammatory as this as a cornerstone of the faith. I can see no reason to make the claim unless they were indeed convinced that it was true.
Did he resurrect?
There seems to be little reason to doubt the existence of Jesus, or even that he aroused the animosity of the ruling officials and was crucified. The few non-Christian references to Jesus from the first century seem not to question his crucifixion at the hands of Pilate. But what happened to him after that. The idea that he was restored to life seems clearly incredible. And a spiritual resurrection would seem to work just as well theologically, and indeed some Christians today make just that claim. But it does seem clear that the early church believed in a literal physical resurrection. While there is no physical proof available to us today concerning that resurrection, there must have been pretty convincing proof for those who were eyewitnesses to his death and later appearances. And at the same time, no proof that he had not resurrected, otherwise there would have been little chance of convincing an audience that had no built-in reason to believe it. We could argue the resurrection from the basis of the empty tomb. But most convincing to me is the testimony of his early followers. For those who were closest to the events, there seemed to be no question in their minds concerning the physical resurrection of Jesus.
1 Corinthians is universally attributed to the Apostle Paul, even by skeptics who question much of the rest of the New Testament. And the date of its writing is generally held to be in the range of 53-57 A.D., or about 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the 15th chapter of this letter Paul addresses the resurrection of believers, and ties it closely with the resurrection of Jesus. He begins this section with what is generally accepted as an early creed of the church, likely in place within 5 years of Jesus resurrection.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV
While the underlined portions above were obviously added by Paul, it does tell us that the earliest church clearly believed in Jesus resurrection, a bodily resurrection that allowed him to visibly appear to others. And that at the time of 1 Corinthians writing there were still a substantial number of witnesses to the resurrection that would verify their encounter with the risen Jesus.
What is the significance of his sacrifice and resurrection?
Many people today seem to believe that the message of the Bible is that God had a plan for humanity; we rebelled against him, and as a result have frustrated his plan. And in order to get things back on track, God was forced to deal with our sin, was somehow required to offer himself as a perfect sacrifice to redeem us to himself. But is that really the case?
Indeed God does have a plan for us. And indeed we seem to prefer following our own plan of action rather than his. And he has offered himself, in the person of Jesus, as a sacrifice of redemption. But I do not believe that there is any truth to the idea that Jesus sacrifice for us was somehow a fallback position required because of our sin. In contrast, the New Testament actually teaches that Jesus was prepared as a sacrifice for us before the creation. It was the original plan. Nor do I believe that it was the only plan that God could have chosen. Instead I believe that it was intentionally chosen by him because it would require faith on our part to accept it, and that, rather than perfection, was what he was looking for. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and what he did for us.
There is no way to conclusively prove that Jesus existed, that he was God in human form and that he was physically resurrected after his crucifixion. But there is no good reason to deny that he did live and developed a following. And it seems clear that the New Testament Gospel accounts accurately reflect the beliefs of his early followers. Beliefs that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he rose on the third day. I am willing to share in those beliefs because (1), I believe the New Testament is a trustworthy account, (2), because of the transformed lives of other people throughout the intervening 2000 years, and most importantly (3), because of the difference it has made in my own life.