The Christian faith can be said to be about a lot of things, loving others, being a faithful person, saying sorry, praying, trusting in God, forgiving your enemies, the list could go on… but at the root of everything in Christianity is not a set of ideals or guidance for life, but a person, Jesus.
The Gospels recount that just over 2000 years ago a man called Jesus was born in the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ just south of Jerusalem, raised in Nazareth, a tiny village (probably not more than 200 people) up north in the region of Galilee. For three short years in his early thirties Jesus, who had previously done construction and carpentry work, shifted focus and became an itinerant teacher, preacher, and healer. He was Jewish and he taught the Hebrew Scriptures in incredibly fresh ways that meant that thousands flocked to hear him. In his very first recorded sermon, the sermon that kick-started his itinerant ministry, Jesus stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, and read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
After this inaugural sermon Jesus went around the villages and towns of Galilee and Judaea doing just that. He spoke powerfully about the good news (that the promises made by God in the Hebrew Scriptures were now being fulfilled) and performing astonishing miracles. So far all of this is recorded by four gospel writers known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
These four authors go on to write, collectively, 64,358 words about this man Jesus. They carefully detail his teachings; sermons, parables, and lessons which have made indelible marks on cultures down the ages. They also record shocking encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of day in which Jesus directly challenged hypocrisy, deceit, judgementalism, abuse, controlling behaviour and religiosity. They record that Jesus was a friend of ‘sinners’, sharing meals with and befriending people who wouldn’t usually be associated with a religious person. The gospel writers record that he performed many miracles and was widely known for doing so. They record these miracles as shocking to them and to those watching or being healed, miracles that they hardly believed themselves, at least initially. These miracles were not, it seems, to make everything better for everyone in the here and now, but rather, signs that Jesus had power in an unseen realm and that this power brought restoration. Jesus invited everyone to follow him; to turn away from things they knew to be harmful and to put their hope in a God who loved them.
For some brought up within or near Christianity this narrative is so familiar that it’s almost part of cultural folklore, not really something to consider as true or false. For others less familiar with the Christian story it may sound like nonsense that one may assume was made up somewhere along the line. Either way, if we do stop to think about the narrative around Jesus, questions emerge. How could we know if any of the accounts of Jesus are accurate? Who were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? When did they write their gospels? How do we know these accounts of Jesus’ life weren’t written by some other group of people later on? Even if they were written by the alleged authors why should anyone trust what they wrote when there are so many religious nutters out there who believe preach in all sorts of hocus pocus?
From the outset there are several reasons that someone might not even bother to think about the four gospels as truthful, eyewitness accounts. For instance, one could ask if it isn’t likely that Jesus’ teachings just happened to connect with first century Jews, a group of people who were desperate for hope and who therefore assigned him some sort of elevated status as a way of coping with the cognitive dissonance of their religious beliefs and their lived experience of oppression and domination at the hands of the Roman Empire? Couldn’t it be that somewhere along the line their hopes got mixed up with reality and this myth turned into a very catchy religion today known as Christianity? In fact, could it be that the religion’s lasting appeal is simply that it offers the believer magical escape, salvation or absolution, a way of hiding from reality? For some, psychological explanations for religion in general and in this instance, for Christianity, might be enough to undermine any desire to investigate historical facts or lack thereof. But, in this short article I nevertheless want to look at some of these facts. They are quite remarkable and could perhaps, even for a convinced skeptic, cast the Christian message and question of who Jesus is into a different and new light.
Jesus had been a poor construction worker, part of a colonized people at the edge of the Roman Empire, teaching informally for three short years, mostly around little-known towns on the shores of Lake Galilee, eventually suffering the shameful death of execution by crucifixion. There is nothing in the facts about Jesus’ life and work that easily explains how the movement that he began utterly swept the Empire in the years following his death. There was no obvious benefit to becoming a Christian in the first 300 years after its inception. In fact, the opposite was true, Christians were ostracized in society and their leaders frequently persecuted. Yet Christianity grew and spread. Today Jesus is estimated to have had a greater impact on the world than any human being in recorded history. This alone is fascinating and warrants inquiry.
Let’s start with the questions raised earlier. Why should we trust the accounts of Jesus life ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Well, for a few reasons.
These accounts are all dated by modern scholars to within a few decades of Jesus ministry. The great majority of incidental details they contain, whether facts about the political leaders, the geography of first century Palestine, or facts about the culture and religious customs have, over centuries of careful study proven to be incredibly accurate.
The gospel writers include many embarrassing details about themselves; they record numerous occasions where Jesus rebuked them for their selfishness, for not understanding what he was talking about, for wanting to walk away when things got hard, for walking away when things got really hard, for sleeping on the job, for dismissing children, women and people from ethnic or religious minorities and not understanding that Jesus prioritised those whom society (and they) marginalised. These details aren’t airbrushed out or excused away but included rather candidly. This seems to lend credibility to the accounts.
The gospel writers don’t seem to attempt to synthesize their accounts. While they paint a strikingly coherent picture of who Jesus was as a person, they also include details that sometimes seem at odds with one another, something that seems unlikely if the gospels were later fabrications or attempts to convince people of a particular narrative about Jesus.
Jesus’ teachings and sermons are widely regarded as some of the most profound moral and spiritual teachings ever to have been written down. His ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in which he speaks of loving our enemies, his parables such as ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan’ and his iteration of the ‘Golden Principle’ (uniquely encouraging proactive love and mercy) have inspired and amazed philosophers, politicians, and the average person on the street for centuries. His words have been known to turn hardened slave traders into abolitionists, gang leaders into community builders. It has been pointed out that it seems far more likely that these powerful words came from one genius thinker and teacher than from a variety of later thinkers who happen to all be geniuses too and yet wanted to ascribe their teachings to Jesus.
Tradition passed down that two of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and two by people who interviewed eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke). It seems a strange and unlikely choice, if these gospels were made up later and written, not by the authors suggested, but by some other person or group of people, that they would have ascribed only two of the four gospels to eyewitnesses (which of would of course lends them much greater credibility). The fact that two gospels are said to have been written by people who interviewed eyewitnesses, rather than being eyewitnesses themselves – seems like something that would be passed down only if it were true.
In recent years some have wondered if the existence of other gospels (for e.g., the gospel of Philip, Judas, or Thomas), and their exclusion from the New Testament canon indicates an attempt to control the narrative about Jesus in the early centuries. However, these extra-biblical gospels which are dated to within 100-150 years after the four New Testament gospels were written do not include any of the detail historians have used to validate the canonical gospels as historically accurate. As just one example of this, the four gospels collectively mention 26 different geographical locations, 16 in Matthew and Luke and 13 in Mark and John. These locations range from well-known places that anyone who didn’t live in the area would likely know about (Jerusalem for example), to tiny towns like Cana or Bethpage which wouldn’t appear on maps. In comparison the non-canonical gospels make no mention of these lesser-known places, but only mention the cities or rivers that were well-known to everyone. Rather than an attempted cover up, the criteria for inclusion in the New Testament seems to have been about proximity to the events that took place to ensure credibility.
In addition to this, the significant events described in the four gospels match really well with what the Apostle Paul records. Paul was writing even earlier than the gospels, a mere 20-30 years following Jesus’ crucifixion. While he didn’t undertake to write a gospel account of the life of Jesus, Paul’s writings are the earliest we have about Christ and confirm what the gospel writers say about him.
By the 3rd century AD from Syria to France to Egypt, evidence shows that there was a consensus that these four books were read together as four different yet true accounts of the life of Jesus written by people who were either eyewitnesses or had good access to eyewitness testimony. Bart Ehrman, an agnostic and known skeptic of Christianity says, ‘…the oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus… are the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the New Testament and its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists.’
Given that by this point Christians had no political power, quite the opposite, at some points were heavily persecuted, and that in those days travel was difficult, it is hard to imagine that some centralised effort to impose a set of beliefs on all the believers was attempted. Rather it seems that these beliefs were springing up naturally by word of mouth.
The impact that Jesus had in the centuries following his death is quite breathtaking given his low social status and crucifixion (which could have reasonably expected to be a “movement-ending” death). To put it in context, we have as much, if not more detailed information about the life of Jesus written closer to his lifetime than we have about the life of the Emperor Tiberius, the most famous man at the time.
Another reason to trust the gospels is that the major events recorded are corroborated by three major non-Christian sources writing in or near to the time of Jesus.
Cornelius Tacitus, the Roman general who is widely accepted to be the most important Roman historian from this period corroborates some significant facts recorded in the gospels. Tacitus confirms that Jesus was sentenced to death under Pontius Pilate and that this happened during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Tacitus also confirms that by the time of the great fire of Rome (AD 64) a mere thirty odd years after Jesus’ death, despite heavy persecution under the emperor Nero (who chose to blame the Christians for the fire of Rome), the numbers of people who had begun to worship Jesus in Rome was, in his words a vast multitude, ‘multitude ingens’. We know that the Christians (as they were named by society) weren’t simply followers of Jesus’ teachings, but worshipped him. We know this because of the writings of a second non-Christian source, Pliny the Younger.
Pliny the Younger was a famous Roman leader who, after holding many distinguished public offices took the position of governor of Bithynia and Pontus (Northern Ephesus) between AD 109 and 111. Around 60/70 years after the death of Jesus we have letters between Pliny the Younger and the then Emperor Trajan discussing how to best deal with the many Christians in and around Ephesus who, Pliny tells Trajan, are of all ranks, and are to be found not just in the cities but throughout the countryside too. Pliny tells Trajan that the Christians gather in the mornings and sing hymns to Christ ‘as to a god’ or ‘as to God’ (the Latin can be translated either way). When Pliny asks Trajan how he should go about finding out who the true Christians are to punish them, Trajan responds by saying that the way to test this is to ask the person to worship the other Roman or Greek gods because true Christians only worship one God, Christ. This exchange tells us two important things about the early Christians. First that they did indeed worship Christ, and second that in complete contradiction to the Roman and Greek culture, they held the uniquely Jewish belief that they could only worship the one, true, creator God. The most natural conclusion seems to be that, as recorded by the gospels and the rest of the New Testament accounts, Jesus’ followers worshipped him as God.
But what would have convinced ‘vast multitudes’ in Rome that this man, Jesus, was God following his public execution? This is where the third non-Christian source brings some interesting facts to light. Flavius Josephus, the most important historian writing in 1st century Palestine was living in Jerusalem when Ananus brought the Christian leaders in Jerusalem before the Jewish Sanhedrin to be tried, in AD 64. Among these leaders, Josephus tells us, was James, the brother of Jesus. This group of leaders were preaching that they believed Jesus was the saviour of the world. What could have convinced Jesus’ followers of this? And even more intriguing, what could have convinced Jesus’ own brother, someone who would have had access to all the information about Jesus throughout his life? James would have been best placed to refute the stories about Jesus’ miraculous birth, had they been fabricated. However James goes on to be leader of the movement and, as Josephus records, die for his belief in Jesus. In fact, the book of 1 Corinthians, widely accepted to have been written in AD 56, says that in the years following Jesus’ death not just James, but Jesus’ other brothers and their wives travelled around spreading the message that Jesus was the saviour of the world. Many people have grandiose ideas about themselves, it is less frequent to find siblings believing them too. The gospel accounts tell us that James had not followed or believed in Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime. Something happened after Jesus’ death to change his mind.
The gospel writers tell us that the first claims that Jesus was seen alive again after his crucifixion are by Jesus’ female friends. Initially these women are dismissed and disbelieved by Jesus’ male friends until Jesus appears to them also. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, now widely regarded by scholars to be one of the earliest creeds summarizing the beliefs of the first century Christian community, the apostle Paul writes, ‘For what I received I passed on to you 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 Scripture, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living…’.
Jesus’ dead body never turned up. And instead of entering a time of mourning and hiding fearfully from the authorities that arrested Jesus as might be expected, Jesus followers appear to have been overcome by some sort of amazed joy, filling the streets with the news that they had seen Jesus resurrected, heard him, touched him, seen him eating fish even! The news that this man from Nazareth really was the promised saviour of all the world was, and is, still at the heart of the Christian message.
While the thought that God came to earth as a man just over 2000 years ago, that somehow his death on the cross did something powerful to initiate real, true spiritual healing and reconciliation between us and God, that all of this was proved by his appearing in bodily resurrected form to so many people that news of it spread like wildfire (most of Jesus’ close friends died for their claim that they saw him resurrected and we don’t know of a single one who recanted that belief)… might seem crazy, could it also just be true?
Jesus stands at the center of any and every question of the Christian faith. While Christians believe that the writers of the Bible were inspired by God to give us stories and testimonies about who God is through his interactions with different people in different times and places within different cultural contexts, all of it is building up to a time in which God would reveal himself fully in the man, Jesus. While many other questions could and should be asked about this bold claim (after all if something is true it should be able to withstand scrutiny from every angle), these questions might be a helpful place to end today’s reflection: if Jesus really is God, what does his life and teachings say about the nature of the creator God? If Jesus is God, and his death was for me, what does that mean about what I mean to God? If Jesus is God, what does that mean about the possibility of healing and restoration (and how I think of and treat any enemy I might feel I have)? And if Jesus really is God, what might his resurrection, his power over death, mean for our world?