The Historical Reality of Jesus

 

The work of scholars like the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus confirm Jesus's prophecy: there were indeed a number of Jewish leaders in the 1st Century who claimed to be the Messiah of Hebrew prophecy. Some of these claimed the ability to perform miracles. In the 1st Century, according to that same source, there were also a lot of Galileans named "Jesus," and a lot of these were probably crucified by the Romans for their militant messianic beliefs.

Whether one of these men named "Jesus" actually forms the historical original - the one who inspired the text of the Gospels - remains a challenging question for many reasons. First, there are no contemporary records, and the earliest documents that do mention Jesus were not written during what would have been his lifetime. Next, those first documents are themselves so unreliable that they cannot be trusted on questions of this kind. Finally, the evidence about Jesus that they provide is itself contradictory.

CREATING CHRIST does not, and cannot, take a position on whether a real Jesus ever existed. What it reveals, instead, is the origins of what we believe we know about him, that is, what we can know about the origins of Christianity.

The Reliability of the New Testament

 

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor," (Luke 6:20) while the Gospel of Matthew only quotes Jesus as saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." (Matthew 5:3)

 

Now, did Jesus say both slightly different things on two different occasions... or has at least one of our Gospel writers taken liberties with the original?

 

Before his crucifixion, did Jesus actually say, "Take up your Cross and follow me?" (Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23, Matthew 16:24) Even assuming Jesus could see the future, would any listener have known what Jesus was talking about?

 

Doesn't it make much more sense to suppose that later Christians, believers who already knew about the death of Jesus and had already begun using the Cross as a symbol, were the true authors of this statement?

 

 

Who Were the First Christians?

 

Perhaps the hardest of the teachings of Christ to ascribe to a historical Jesus are the many times that he criticized the Jewish Law as it was practiced in his time. Jesus famously held it be acceptable to work on the Sabbath (e.g., Mark 3:1-6), and he held all foods to be "clean" in contrast to the Mosaic regulations against impure foods (e.g., Matthew 15:11). Arguing against the contemporary distrust of foreigners, Jesus advocated spreading the Gospel to all the nations and peoples of the earth (e.g., Mark 16:15).

 

Why are such teachings hard to believe were original to Jesus? Because, as scholars have long known, Jesus's first followers -- those who are said to have known him personally -- continued to follow Jewish practice in these very ways. Indeed, they seem to have actively resisted discontinuing them.

 

According to the Book of Acts, long after the Crucifixion, St. Peter was still eating Kosher (Acts 10:1-48). According to Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Apostle came into conflict with the existing Christian leaders when Paul presented his own "Gospel" to the Christian leadership in Jerusalem, including Peter and James. They still oppose what Paul calls his "new freedom in Christ." (Galatians, chapters 1-3.) This is hard to understand if Jesus really was a critic of contemporary Jewish religious practices.

 

Doesn't it make more sense to believe that Paul was the first to question the Kosher lifestyle? After all, as Paul explains, he was the first to seek large numbers of Gentile converts, and he repeatedly emphasized how he received his distinctive message from no man, but from a direct revelation of his own -- even though these are alleged to be Jesus's teachings from decades earlier.

 

 

The Sources of Conflict

 

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians understood that these cultural issues were the ultimate source of the Jewish conflict with Rome.

 

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:11-16)

 

 

Was Jesus a Political Revolutionary?

 

If the words of Jesus have been augmented, altered, edited and changed... what can we really know about him?

 

And if Jesus was a believer in the Jewish Law, as seems apparent from the practices of his first followers, then was the whole message of peace with Romans also a later addition?

 

Contrasting the message of peace for which Jesus is so famous, we also read in the Gospels that Jesus proclaimed that his kingdom was "at hand" or near. Although he describes his Kingdom as being "not of this world" and suggests that it was in no need of being established by revolution (John 18:36), Jesus also says that he had come to "bring the sword," not the peace that he elsewhere urged upon his followers (e.g., Matthew 10:34). And Jesus himself physically attacked the Jewish Temple. Some of his disciples may have been Sicarii or Zealots, if the Gospels' descriptions suggest anything about "Judas Iscariot" and "Simon the Zealot." And, it seems, they carried swords. (Luke 22:35-38) Moreover, the Messianic Jews of that era were indeed political revolutionaries.

 

From all of this, some scholars have argued that the real Jesus was a political revolutionary, watered down by his later followers who sought accommodation with the Roman world.

 

Reversing Expectations About the Messiah

 

Jesus of the Gospels repeatedly proclaims that his kingdom (at least so far) is not of this earth (although he predicts he will return in power and glory). (Mark 13) Jesus clearly rejects the "Kosher" reasons for the conflict. He repeatedly advocates peace. Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple within the lives of people hearing him, unmistakably warning the rebels of impending disaster. If the Gospels are to be believed, Jesus praised tax collectors and Roman army officers. He urged turning the other cheek to aggression. There can be little doubt that Jesus - as the Gospels report his words - rejected all war with the Romans.

 

If this portrait of Jesus could be penned and promoted within a century of his alleged life on earth, how could it be believed or accepted if Jesus was ever known to have advocated political revolution?

 

Indeed, that such liberties could be taken with his message less than century after he lived suggests that very little was known with any certainty about Jesus in the 1st Century. It does not help that Jesus's very name identifies him as the Savior - "Jesus" means "God saves." Perhaps, as explored in CREATING CHRIST with all of these other issues, this explains why the Old Testament appears to have been the primary source of information about Jesus, instead of more recent knowledge or firsthand accounts.
 

All this leaves us without a good answer as to whether Jesus ever really existed. Based on the evidence we possess, the only honest answer to that question remains: WE DON'T KNOW.

 

 

 

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© 2019  James S. Valliant & Warren Fahy     All Rights Reserved.

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