I recently read Finding the Real Jesus (which appears to be sort of a shortened version of The Case for the Real Jesus) by Lee Strobel. According to Strobel, several “portraits” of Jesus have been recently gaining popularity:
Increasingly, the traditional picture of Jesus is under an intellectual onslaught from critical scholars, popular historians, TV documentaries, bestselling authors, Internet bloggers, Muslim debaters, and atheist think tanks. They’re capturing the public’s imagination with dramatic new depictions of Jesus that bear scant resemblance to the picture historically embraced by the church.
In his book, Strobel examines five popular “portraits” of Jesus:
The Gnostic Jesus (Jesus as a revealer of hidden knowledge – including the teaching that we all possess the divine light that he embodied.)
The Misquoted Jesus (The Jesus whose words have been misquoted or wrongly recorded.)
The Failed Jesus (The Jesus who didn’t fulfill all the messianic prophecies that had to be fulfilled prior to the fall of the Jewish temple in AD 70.)
The Uncrucified Jesus (The Jesus who didn’t really die on the cross.)
The Deceased Jesus (The Jesus who didn’t really rise from the dead.)
Strobel interviews many historians and scholars, seeking to understand where the logic and facts lie.
Near the end of his book, Strobel concludes:
Not only had the five portraits been unmasked as phony, but my investigative journey also had yielded a powerful affirmative case for the reliability of the four Gospels, Jesus’ fulfillment of the messianic predictions, and his resurrection. For me, it was further confirmation that the traditional view of Christ is amply supported by a firm foundation of historical facts.
The Gnostic Jesus
According to Lee Strobel:
Although Gnosticism is diverse, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says Gnostics historically have held four basic ideas in common: the world is evil, it was the product of an evil creator, salvation consists of being rescued from it, and the rescue comes through secret knowledge, or gnosis in Greek.
Strobel examines the credibility of the book of Thomas – a core text in Gnostic Christianity, and finds the book to be flawed.
In Strobel’s words:
Again contradicting the New Testament, Thomas quotes Jesus as telling his disciples: “If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.” And contrary to the Bible’s depiction of Jesus as elevating the lowly status of women, he is quoted in Thomas as teaching that “every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Apparently, Gnosticism and feminism don’t mix so well.
From Strobel’s interview with Craig A. Evans – Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins at Houston Baptist University, and former Distinguished Professor of New Testament, director of the graduate program at Acadia Divinity College, and professor of biblical studies at Trinity Western University – we learn that the gospel of Thomas is not one of the earlier writings (earlier is better, when it comes to historical accuracy and trustworthiness):
“Matthew and Luke sometimes improve on Mark’s grammar and word choice. Mark is not real polished in terms of Greek grammar and style, while Matthew and Luke are much more so. And in the Gospel of Thomas we find these more polished Matthew and Luke forms of the sayings of Jesus. So Thomas isn’t referring to the earlier Mark, but to the later Matthew and Luke. We also find references to the special material that’s only found in Matthew and only in Luke, both of which scholars think is later, not earlier.
“And Thomas has material from the gospel of John. How can Thomas be written in the 50s and the 60s but still have Johannine material that doesn’t get written down until the 90s?” – Professor Craig A. Evans
This is only a small taste of the wealth of well-researched information on this topic, and throughout the book.
The Misquoted Jesus
Can we trust the quality and accuracy of the New Testament we have today? How do we know what Jesus really said? Which manuscripts are accurate and trustworthy?
Lee Strobel, on his interview with Professor Daniel B. Wallace:
Scholars reconstructing the original text of the New Testament have thousands of manuscripts to work with. The more copies, the easier it is to discern the contents of the original. Given their centrality to textual criticism, I asked Wallace to talk about the quantity and quality of New Testament documents.
“Quite simply, we have more witnesses to the text of the New Testament than to any other ancient Greek or Latin literature. It’s really an embarrassment of riches!” he declared.
“We have more than 5,700 Greek copies of the New Testament. There are another 10,000 copies in Latin. Then there are versions in other languages – Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and so on. These are estimated to number between 10,000 and 15,000. So right there we’ve got 25,000 to 30,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament.”…
“…The quantity and quality of the New Testament manuscripts are unequalled in the ancient Greco-Roman world. The average Greek author has fewer than twenty copies of his works still in existence, and they come from no sooner than five hundred to a thousand years later. If you stacked the copies of his works on top of each other, they would be about four feet tall. Stack up copies of the New Testament and they would reach more than a mile high – and again, that doesn’t include quotations from the church fathers.”
On textual variants in the Bible:
“How many Christian doctrines are jeopardized by textual variants?”
“Ehrman is making the best case he can in Misquoting Jesus,” Wallace said. “The remarkable thing is that you go through his whole book and you say, ‘Where did he actually prove anything?’ Ehrman didn’t prove that any doctrine is jeopardized. Let me repeat the basic thesis that has been argued since 1707: No cardinal or essential doctrine is altered by any textual variant that has plausibility of going back to the original. The evidence for that has not changed to this day.”
“What comes the closest?”
“Mark 9:29 could impact orthopraxy, which is right practice, but not orthodoxy, which is right belief. Here Jesus says you can’t cast out a certain kind of demon except by prayer – and some manuscripts add, ‘and fasting.’ So if ‘and fasting’ is part of what Jesus said, then here’s a textual variant that affects orthopraxy – is it necessary to fast to do certain kinds of exorcisms?
“But, seriously, does my salvation depend on that?” he said. “Most Christians have never even heard of that verse or will ever perform an exorcism.” – Lee Strobel / Daniel B. Wallace interview, Finding the Real Jesus
The Failed Jesus
Did Jesus fail to fulfill any of the Messianic prophecies that must have been fulfilled before the destruction of the temple in AD 70?
Jewish and christian scholars agree: the Hebrew scriptures foretell the coming of the Messiah. “Belief in the coming of the Messiah has always been a fundamental part of Judaism,” said Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. “it is a concept that is repeated again and again throughout the length and breadth of Jewish literature.”
The big controversy is whether Jesus fulfilled the ancient messianic prophecies and thus matches the portrait of the Messiah, a word meaning “anointed one.” The Greek word for Messiah is christos, or Christ, the term customarily affixed to Jesus’ name.
If these messianic predictions really did come true in Jesus, the implications are enormous. First, this would confirm the supernatural nature of the Bible, since the odds of fulfilling so many ancient prophecies by mere chance would be mathematically prohibitive. Second, if only Jesus fulfilled these ancient prophecies, then this would be a definitive affirmation of his identity as the one sent by God to be the Savior of Israel and the world.
Of course, the opposite is also true. When a Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming,” he replied: “I who speak to you am he.” Having made this unambiguous claim, if Jesus then failed to match the prophetic portrait, he would be an impostor worthy of rejection and disdain – a false prophet who should be rejected by Jews and Gentiles alike.
– Lee Strobel, Finding the Real Jesus (Chapter 3: PORTRAIT #3: THE FAILED JESUS Was He Unsuccessful in Fulfilling the Ancient Prophecies?)
And here’s something fascinating: There’s a rabbinic tradition preserved in the Talmud that says on the Day of Atonement there were three different signs that the animal sacrifices the high priest offered had been accepted by God and atonement given to the nation. In the years when the signs would come up negative, the people would be ashamed and mourn, because God had not accepted their sacrifice. “Then it says that during the last forty years before the second temple was destroyed, all three signs were negative each and every time. Think about that: Jesus was probably crucified in AD 30, and the temple was destroyed in AD 70. So from the time of his death to the time of the destruction of the temple – a period of forty years – God signaled that he no longer accepted the sacrifices and offerings of the Jewish people. Why?”
Because final atonement had been made through Yeshua, just as he had prophesied…
“…So add everything up,” he said. “All of these clues point to Yeshua and Yeshua alone. He fulfills the prophecies in the most incredible way. Since the Messiah had to come almost two thousand years ago, according to the testimony of the Jewish scriptures, then if Yeshua isn’t the Messiah, there will never be a Messiah. It’s too late for anyone else. If Yeshua didn’t come and do what had to be done in the first phase of things, when there was a definite deadline, then there’s no hope that the second phase will ever come, when he will come in the clouds of glory to rule and reign.”
– Dr. Michael Brown, Lee Strobel, Finding the Real Jesus
The Uncrucified Jesus
According to Michael Licona (from an interview with Strobel):
Skeptic James Tabor says, ‘I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion he was truly dead.’ Both Gerd Lüdemann, who’s an atheistic New Testament critic, and Bart Ehrman, who’s an agnostic, call the crucifixion an indisputable fact.
Why? First of all, because all four Gospels report it. We also have a number of non-Christian sources that corroborate the crucifixion. For instance, the historian Tacitus said Jesus ‘suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.’ The Jewish historian Josephus reports that Pilate ‘condemned him to be crucified.’ Lucian of Samosata, who was a Greek satirist, mentions the crucifixion, and Mara Bar-Serapion, who was a pagan, confirms Jesus was executed. Even the Jewish Talmud reports that ‘Yeshu was hanged.’
The Deceased Jesus
The logic presented in Strobel’s book and his interviews with scholars makes a compelling case for the accuracy and significance of the following five points in support of the resurrection of Jesus.
#1: Jesus Was Killed By Crucifixion
#2: Jesus’ Disciples Believed That He Rose and Appeared to Them
#3: The Conversion of the Church Persecutor, Paul
#4: The Conversion of the Skeptic James, Jesus’ Half-Brother
#5: Jesus’ Tomb Was Empty
There is too much information to include here, and I don’t want to give away the whole book! Finding the Real Jesus is a relatively short read, however, and one that I would highly recommend.
[Professor Craig A.] Evans knows the sweep of historical evidence. He’s well aware of what conclusions it reasonably supports and what it can’t. And he was aghast at what he was reading in popular books about Jesus.
We live in a strange time that indulges, even encourages, some of the strangest thinking,” he wrote in Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. “What I find particularly troubling is that a lot of the nonsense comes from scholars. We expect the tabloid, pseudo-scholarship from the quacks, but not from scholars who teach at respectable institutions of higher learning.”
Nevertheless, what he found were fanciful theories that run beyond the evidence, distortions or neglect of the four Gospels, misguided suspicions, unduly strict critical methods, questionable texts from later centuries, anachronisms, exaggerated claims, and “hokum history” – all resulting in “the fabrication of an array of pseudo-Jesuses.”
In sum, he said, “Just about every error imaginable has been made. A few writers have made almost all of them.”
Evans isn’t alone in his assessment. Numerous other New Testament luminaries also have started to publicly condemn the way readers are being duped by ill-supported pictures of Jesus.
James H. Charlesworth, professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and an expert on Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, decried “the misinformed nonsense that has confused the reading public over the past few years.”
James D.G. Dunn, professor emeritus at the University of Durham in England, agreed. “The quest of the historical Jesus has been seriously misled by much poor scholarship and distorted almost beyond recognition by recent pseudo-scholarship,” he said.
Equally adamant was John P. Meier, professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of a widely acclaimed multivolume work on Jesus. “For decades now,” he said, “the unsuspecting public has been subjected to dubious academic claims about the historical Jesus that hardly rise above the level of sensationalistic novels.”
Gerald O’Collins, professor emeritus of the Gregorian University in Rome, warned of the “sensationalist claims about Jesus that quickly turn out to be based on mere wishful thinking.” Gerd Theissen, professor at the University of Heidelberg, bemoaned “sensational modern approaches in Jesus research that do not live up to the standards of academic research.”
“Readers should beware of shocking new claims about Jesus or his earliest followers based on flimsy evidence,” warned New Testament professor Ben Witherington III. Unfortunately, he added, Americans have been “prone to listen to sensational claims . . . even when there is little or no hard evidence to support such conjectures.”
In the end, none of the sensational claims about Jesus that I investigated turned out to be close calls. One by one, they were systematically dismantled by scholars who backed up their positions not with verbal sleights of hand or speculation, but with facts, logic, and evidence
Some resources for question-askers:
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