Jesus: The Great Debate
Without question, Jesus is the most controversial person in human history. The life of Jesus of Nazareth began in the controversy of His virgin birth and ended thirty-three years later with the remarkable claim that He actually rose from the dead on the third day following His death on the cross. Jesus began His ministry with the miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. Later, Jesus created more controversy with His divine healings, including the miracle of opening the eyes of a blind boy. The ancient prophet Isaiah had foretold that one of the unique signs of the coming Messiah would be that he would "open the eyes of the blind" (Isaiah 42:7). Until that point in history no one had ever healed someone born blind.
To the religious leaders of Israel this miracle was tantamount to Jesus claiming He was the true Messiah. His miraculous healings of so many people afflicted with disease confounded the religious leaders of the day. His fulfillment of the dozens of messianic prophecies, His death on the cross, and His astonishing resurrection from the dead polarized Jewish society. While thousands acknowledged Him as the Son of God, many others violently rejected His claims to be the true Messiah and equal with God.
Jesus' claim to be the Son of God ultimately launched the greatest religious movement in human history. Two thousand years have passed, yet today over a billion people throughout the world worship this poor Galillean teacher as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the Son of God. Followers of Christ can be found in every nation on earth and in every culture, language, and profession. Over 20 percent of the world's population --- from simple peasant farmers in the Sudan to brilliant, well-educated professors at Oxford --- are committed Christians who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that the Gospel record is correct. At the same time, there are millions of people, from all walks of life, who reject the Bible's claims about Jesus. Many people simply cannot believe the Gospels' claims about His virgin birth, His miracles, and most of all, His resurrection from the dead.
For these people, the questions remain: Did Jesus really live? Are the accounts about His miraculous healings and raising people from the dead true? Did He actually die on the cross? What is the evidence that He truly rose from the dead? What historical evidence is there to support the Bible's extraordinary claim that Jesus is the Son of God and the true Messiah?
The purpose of this book, Jesus: The Great Debate, is to present the tremendous amount of historical, archeological, and scientific evidence that points to the reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After reviewing this material, I believe most readers will agree that we possess more authentic historical material about the life of Jesus than almost any other person from ancient history. In fact, we know more about the last eight days of the life of Jesus of Nazareth than we do about any other person in the ancient world of Rome, Egypt, or Greece.
The last decade of this millennium has featured a veritable explosion of books that explore the quest for the historical Jesus. The widespread interest in Jesus has produced a powerful debate between agnostic historians and liberal theologians, and conservative Christian scholars. One of the greatest subjects of dispute is the question of what historical evidence qualifies as acceptable proof of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Many liberal and agnostic scholars reject most of the evidence found in the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. They also declare that, apart from the New Testament, there is almost nothing that qualifies as acceptable historical evidence about Jesus. However, conservative Christian historians accept the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the contributions of Jewish and pagan historical sources as reliable evidence about His life. In addition, the contributions from the field of archeology and science reveal much about Jesus and those who interacted with Him during His short life.
The Claims of Agnostic Historians
1. The agnostic historians claim that there is little surviving historical evidence about Jesus.
However, there is a significant amount of surviving historical evidence about Jesus. Four Gospel accounts from four separate individuals who claim that they personally knew Jesus and were eyewitnesses to many key events provide historical evidence. There are reliable references to Jesus from His enemies, including Roman historians and governors, as well as pagan historians who describe the remarkable darkness that occurred during His crucifixion. Significant Jewish references about the life and death of Jesus have been found in the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the works of contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Archeological evidence confirms many of the details of the Gospels' account about Jesus. Finally, scientific evidence about the mysterious Shroud of Turin may actually prove details of Jesus' crucifixion.
2. Agnostic historians suggest that we cannot place confidence in the authority of Gospel accounts ofJesus because none of the four original Gospels have survived.
They maintain that the oldest surviving copies of the Gospels date from approximately A.D. 200, therefore we can't know what happened to them between the time of their composition and the creation of surviving copies in A.D. 200. The truth is that we have over five thousand existing copies of the Greek New Testament that date back to the first few centuries of the early church. No other ancient manuscript has survived with more than ten genuine copies. The wealth of surviving manuscripts of the New Testament, as well as over one hundred thousand letters from Christians that contain more than 99 percent of the eight thousand verses of the New Testament provides overwhelming proof that the text of the New Testament, is historically reliable.
3. These liberal historians argue that the authors of the four Gospels are unknown.
According to them, the current names were given to the Gospels during the later part of the second century to give them authority. Therefore we don't know who wrote the Gospels. However, the historical writings of the early church provide strong evidence that the four Gospels were indeed written by the individuals whose names are ascribed to them.
4. The agnostic historians claim that the four Gospels are not really independent eyewitness accounts, but are in fact copied from one initial source, namely the Gospel of Mark. Others suggest a hypothetical source document named Q, of which there is no historical evidence other than conjecture.
The Critics dispute the historical accuracy of the four Gospels on the basis that they often differ from each other in their description of small details. However, as any judge or lawyer will tell you, any four eyewitness accounts of an event that agree in every detail would be thrown out of court as a collaboration. Any eyewitnesses of an event, such as a car accident, naturally will describe the same event with different details and occasional discrepancies, although they each honestly describe what they saw of the actual event. The agnostic critics also reject statements in the Gospels that are similar to each other on the basis that they believe they must have been copied from one original source; at the same time, they inconsistently reject statements from the Gospel of John on the basis that none of the other Synoptic Gospels describe the same event or message.
We know that the Jews in the first century were accustomed to memorizing the teachings of their rabbis. They practised powerful memory systems that enabled them to recount the saying of their teachers with great accuracy.
This would account for the similarity of the Gospels. The minor verbal differences are easily explained as well. For example, historians and theologians often point to differences in the Gospels, such as the reference to the "fig tree." Matthew 24:32 says, "Now learn a parable of the fig tree," Whereas Luke 21:29 says, "Behold the fig tree, and all the trees...."
However, for someone like myself who often gives a message on a particular topic to different audiences in cities across America, the minor differences in the Gospels' recounting of Christ's messages are perfectly understandable. If I speak to an audience in New York about Matthew 24 and the next week address an audience in Los Angelos about the vsame topic, the body of the message will be the same, but a number of my specific statements and illustrations will differ. We must remember that Jesus of Nazareth, as an itinerant preacher, would have likely given the same message, such as the Sermon on the Mount, to several different audiences on different days. Slight variations in His expression of the message would be normal.
5. The agnostics believe that the fundamental problem with the Gospels' account of Jesus is the presence of numerous supernatural events and prophecy.
Underlying most of the criticism of modern agnostic historians and theologians is a fundamental attitude that totally dismisses the possibility of supernatural miracles, prophecy, or the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God. It is not simply a question of their examining the historical and textual evidence and rejecting it on the basis of its failure to prove the early churches' claims about Jesus Christ. These agnostic scholars reject the Gospels' supernatural claims before they even begin their investigation. They usually do not even seriously consider the eyewitness evidence of the miracles about Jesus on the basis of their previously declared position that supernatural events cannot possibly occur.
The Problem of Miracles
The event we commonly call a "miracle" is usually called "a sign," "a wonder," "a work," or "a power," in the original Greek language of the Gospels, reflecting the fact that the writers intended to refer to the supernatural event as a purposeful act of God to reveal His power and message to humanity. The Gospel writers often emphasized the astonishment experienced by witnesses of a supernatural "sign" (see Mark 2:12). It is important to note that the word "wonders" is never applied to miracles by itself. The word "wonders" always appears in the Gospels in connection with the word "signs" but never on its own. The consistent evidence presented by the Evangelists is that a miracle is never produced by God solely as a "wonder" but rather as a demonstration of God's supernatural power to authenticate His revealed message or His Messenger, Jesus Christ.
The language we use may actually deceive us regarding the truth about miracles. Theologians and historians often speak of "laws or God" or "laws of nature." They then declare that it is logically impossible that such "laws of God" could ever be overthrown through miracles produced by a higher law, a specific supernatural intervention of God into the affairs of man. They claim these observed "laws of God" cannot be violated, even by God Himself. While this sounds reasonable, it is not. So-called "laws of God" or "laws of nature" are only observations about how nature normally behaves, and cannot restrict the purposeful and supernatural actions of the Supreme Intelligence of the Universe. Such "laws of God or nature" exist only for humans, but not for a supernatural God who created this universe. As other Christian theologians have noted with truth, the creation of a human baby is no less a miracle than the regeneration of life within the dead corpse of Lazarus by the supernatural power of Jesus of Nazareth.
The continuing creative activity of God, which is usually veiled behind the constant actions of what we call "the laws of nature," reveals itself in the presentation of a miracle which demonstrates the supernatural act, as well as the Hand of God Himself. The daily manifestation of the preserving miraculous power of God creating the precisely required amount of oxygen in our atmosphere, the proper amount of heat from the sun, and the exact amount of magnetism required to facilitate the electro-chemical interactions of the cells within our body are only a few of the millions of examples of the continuous demonstration of the supernatural power of God to allow human life to exist and prosper on the earth.
The philosopher John Mill explained that "a miracle is no contradiction to the law of cause and effect. It is a new effect, supposed to be introduced by the introduction of a new cause."1 While the occurrence of absolute miracles is totally impossible in the normal course of events without the direct supernatural intervention of God, there are other miracles recounted in the Bible that are providential miracles. These providential miracles are normal events which are supernaturally caused by God to occur at a specific time to affect a Divine purpose such as the discovery of a coin in the mouth of a fish that Jesus instructed His disciple to find (Matthew 17:27). The fact that a coin was found in a specific fish precisely when Jesus commanded His disciple to catch such a fish is an example of a providential miracle in which an unusual event is caused by God to occur at the exact time the Lord commands to demonstrate His power and underline the significance of Christ's message.
A miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature, because such "laws" are simply our observation of how things normally behave. If we believe that a supernatural God exists with the power to create everything in the universe, then His ability to intervene in that universe at rare intervals to effect specific supernatural acts is not illogical nor impossible. The fact that the normal experience of humanity does not reveal miracles only confirms their extremely rare nature. It is significant that the miracles that occur according to the Scriptures always happen with a purpose of healing, divine deliverance, or as a sign or wonder that affirms the supernatural credentials of Jesus as the Son of God. A biblical sign or wonder is a very unusual event which God brings about to authenticate His revealed message to a skeptical humanity.
The normal evidence of nature demonstrates and illustrates the existence and attributes of God. The rare but purposeful miracles, as described in the Scriptures, demonstrate the supernatural intervention of God into the normal order of events in which He usually acts. Miracles such as restoring the sight of the young man born blind or reviving Lazarus after death are certainly not greater manifestations of the supernatural power of God than the creation of the Earth, the birth of a baby, or the creation of a new sun; but these examples are certainly a different type of manifestation of God's supernatural power. It could be stated that other manifestations, such as the birth of a baby, are examples of a continuous demonstration of His eternal supernatural power in His universe. As the Apostle Paul declared, "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse" ( Romans 1:20).
Modern Historical Critics' Rejection of the Supernatural
This trend of rejecting the supernatural has existed for the last century and a half. The critics' complete denial of the supernatural elements from the Gospels is not due to a detailed examination of the eyewitness records and the detection of contradictions and weaknesses in the disciples' statements. The critics reveal by their statements that their primary objection is their apriori rejection of the possibility of supernatural events occurring at all.
We need to consider the illogical nature of the argument presented by many of these scholars. If a supernatural God truly exists, then logically, all of the miraculous events of the Bible are possible. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632--1677) established the philosophical foundation for the modern anti-supernatural interpretations of the Bible. Spinoza believed that miracles, as God's purposeful violations of His Divine natural laws, were impossible by definition in that God would not contradict His own unchanging laws. Spinoza was the first philosopher to declare that it was unnecessary to even examine the evidence in the Bible for specific miracles. He believed that one should reject the possibility of the supernatural because of its inherent impossibility. Another influential philosopher, Scottish historian David Hume, also rejected the possibility of supernatural events on the basis that miracles were impossible by definition. Hume argued that a miraculous event, no matter how well attested by historical eyewitness evidence, could not be proven to be a miracle because you could not prove that a natural law had actually been overthrown.
In other words, Hume declared that miracles are impossible by definition, but, if the evidence of the miracle is overwhelming, then you simply redefine the definition of natural law to include the miraculous event. Then you declare that the miracle isn't really a miracle after all. That such an argument should prove enormously popular among modern philosophers and religious historians proves to what absurd lengths people will go to escape the evidence of the supernatural. Many of the agnostic historians will not even consider or comment on the fulfillment of dozens of Old Testament prophets' specific predictions about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth on the basis that such prophecies are theoretically impossible in a universe in which the supernatural cannot occur. The influence of Hume's anti-supernatural philosophy has powerfully affected the majority of the modern historical studies of Jesus Christ. This naturalistic and anti-supernatural philosophy became widespread during the Enlightenment, a period that followed the French Revolution in 1800. It is still a powerful influence among scholars today.
This anti-supernatural attitude in connection with studies about the life of Jesus first appeared in Germany. Professor Herman Samuel Reimarus' naturalistic history of Jesus, Fragments: The Intention of Jesus and His Disciples,2 attempted to present the life of Christ by eliminating all miraculous elements from the accounts in the Gospels. Reimarus claimed that the writers of the four Gospels falsely created the supernatural elements to create Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The most important and influential nineteenth century anti-supernatural study of Christ's life was produced in 1835 by David Friedrich Strauss; it was called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined.3 This book strongly argued that it was absurd to believe the Scriptural accounts of supernatural events in the life of Jesus Christ. Strauss also denied that Mark's Gospel could have been an accurate rendition of eyewitness accounts and the genuine recollections the Apostle Peter related to Mark. David Strauss declared that a fundamental principle in examining the Gospel record should be the rejection of any evidence that refers to supernatural events or miracles concerning the life of Jesus.
In his Criticism of the Gospels and History of Their Origin, published in 1851, author Bruno Bauer4 totally rejected the reliability of the Gospel of Mark. He suggested that it was a fictional creation of the early Church and that Jesus of Nazareth likely never existed. Another European writer, E. Renan of France, wrote a popular book, The History of the Origins of Christianity5 in 1863. In it, he denied the historical truth of the miracles as well as the resurrction of Christ. Another popular study of Christ in the last century was Rev. F. W. Farrar's Life of Christ,6 published in 1874, which took a somewhat traditional view of the supernatural elements of the Gospels' accounts without directly dealing with the evidence or refuting the liberal arguments against the miracles. The popular writer and philosopher Albert Schweitzer wrote his influential book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus,7 in 1906. He presented Jesus' apocalyptic message as one that must be understood in terms of His prophetic expectation of the immediate intervention of God into human history to establish the kingdom of God on earth with Jesus ruling from the Throne of David. Schweitzer believed that Jesus, as a human messenger of God, was simply mistaken about God's timing.
While acknowledging the final realization of the kingdom of God in the future, Schweitzer believed that Jesus, because He was not truly the Son of God, did not understand the eschatological plan of God for humanity.
***These fascinating few excerpts were taken from Grant Jeffrey's new book JESUS THE GREAT DEBATE!