Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Historical Jesus Debate: My two cents worth

Introduction: The tensions in scripture

“If the Christian gospel continues to be proclaimed, there is no escape from the
paradox of the one person who is truly divine and truly human.”

“It is the sacred duty of any thinking person to try to
eliminate paradox”.
C.D.F. Moule

All scripture unless otherwise stated is taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
1995, The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids MI

There are many tensions in scripture that on the surface appear irreconcilable. The deeper one delves into genuine biblical Christianity however the more mysteriously compatible these tensions appear.

The tensions between justification by faith alone, or justification by grace alone spawned the Calvinist / Arminian debate. The desire of God to see all men saved and the idea a remnant of believers being called and set apart by God appears contradictory. Predestination stands in contrast to the choice to believe God. These appear as irreconcilable tensions ultimately between Gods sovereignty and mans free will.

Many skeptics have picked up on these tensions and used them as justification for their own views, to try to debunk the Christian faith. Mankind detests mystery, as nature abhors a vacuum.

Who is Jesus?

There is nothing more mysterious and crucial to Christianity than the Christ of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation we find the tension between Christ’s deity and his humanity. At the heart of the debate over the incarnation is the tension between the supernatural and the natural, the sacred and the profane.

“ ‘Who is Jesus?’ stands alone as the most important theological and objective
question in forming the view of the world ourselves and our roles in the world.
In the Bible the question appears repeatedly.”

"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" MT 16:15

were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves
obey him!" MK 4:41

But Jesus remained silent.
The high priest said
to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the
Christ, the Son of God." Matt26:63

Theologian Steven Davis points to the importance of the Christ when he writes;

“Nevertheless, questions about who Jesus was and what he said and did are
crucial for Christians. Our faith is not a dropped-from-the-sky code of behavior
or a set of timeless teachings from a guru. Ours is a religion of history, a
faith whose vital essence consists of great revelatory actions of God in human
history, preeminently the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of the Son of

The Historical Jesus Debate

The Jesus seminar was a think tank started by Robert Funk in the middle of the Nineteen-eighties to attempt to uncover what he saw as the true Jesus described in the New Testament. He believed that much of Christianity had been so influenced by Christian mysticism, gnostic teaching and theological theory as to distort the true picture of Jesus.

Funk attempted to analyse the scriptures supposedly using scientific methods. His aim was to uncover a truer representation of Jesus. The picture he found looked something like this;

“The real, historical Jesus turns out to have been a sort of itinerant, social
critic, the Jewish equivalent of a Greek cynic philosopher. He never claimed to
be the Son of God or to forgive sins or to inaugurate a new covenant between God
and man. His crucifixion was an accident of history; his corpse was probably
thrown into a shallow dirt grave where it rotted away or was eaten by wild

The seminar continued to erode those teachings of Jesus that were thought to be of dubious origin. In the end relying heavily on the Gospel of Thomas, a book deemed non-canonical by evangelical scholars. The reason for this becomes clear when the crux of the historical Jesus debate is understood. Dr Craig argues;

“The number one presupposition of the Seminar is anti–supernaturalism or more
simply, naturalism. Naturalism is the view that every event in the world has a
natural cause. There are no events with supernatural causes. In other words,
miracles cannot happen.”

Jesus in his own teaching warned against such men. His warning to beware of the yeast of the Sadducees (Matt16:6) is a direct reference to their lack of a belief in the supernatural. They not only did not believe in the spiritual realm but argued that the soul left the body after three days. When Christ raised Lazarus from the dead on the fourth day, he was demonstrating the power of Gods spirit at work as well as the futility of their teaching on the resurrection.

Here is a quote from the Jesus seminar:

“The resurrection of Jesus of Christ is not essential to the faith and may not
have happened at all.”

Brad Turnbull wrote a letter to the Jesus seminar in which he stated;

“Whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water or was physically
raised from the dead are all ultimately matters of faith. But for me and many
others, Jesus’ importance lies not in these things but in his life and
teachings. His message regarding the importance of love, forgiveness and the
rejection of materialistic values are as relevant today as they were 2000 years

The testimony of scripture however disagrees. The key to understanding the Bible lies in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It argues that the historicity of Christ’s death and resurrection is of cardinal import to biblical Christianity. Paul doesn’t mince his word when he writes;

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 1CO 15:12-18

There are three points that Paul raises if Christ’s resurrection is not true, our faith and our preaching is useless; the apostles are found to be liars; we are lost and still cut off from God by our sin. The reality of a supernatural and bodily resurrection is central to the message of biblical Christianity.

According to Thomas V. Morris, Assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame has this to say about the tensions apparent in the debate. On the one hand he describes the orthodox camp;

“According to Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, we have in the case of Christ one person
in two natures, divine and human. Since the time of the early church
fathers, it
has been fully appreciated how different these natures
are….There is no greater
divide in the ontology of the Bible than that
between Creator and creature…So I
think it is safe to say that the
ascription of deity to the man Jesus has never
been engaged in lightly by

He goes on to speculate about the “new” theologians.

“It is interesting to note that many theologians who have been led in recent
years to reject the doctrine of the Incarnation as a logical and metaphysical
impossibility have subscribed to an idea of God that is in every way utterly

As testified to earlier, the Bible stands and falls on the person of Jesus and in particular the testimony of the eyewitnesses to his life and ministry, the apostles.

One cannot divorce one part of scripture from the other. It is a unified whole. The New Testament bears witness to the Old. The Old Testament is a type and shadow of the New. The prophets foretold that a suffering servant king would come thousands of years before Christ's birth.

We as the church are chosen by God (election). The validity of the church rests on the this election evidenced by the Gospel. We share in his suffering. We are buried with Christ therefore we shall be raised with him, and reign with him. (Ro 6:5-8) But along with election we also have the precedent of Covenant. You cannot take away one without losing the other.

The case against the historical Jesus

Paul refutes cleverly constructed arguments made by men, because they are just that, made by man. Paul’s revelation he received directly from Christ himself.

The concept of reasonable doubt comes into play when examining “new” theological information. We are encouraged to test teachings and to see if they agree or disagree with scripture, and the experience and testimony of believers. (2 Tim 3:14; Matt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1, 1Tim 5:19)

The apostles were eyewitnesses, to the miracles, resurrection and the ascension of Christ. The apostles were eye-witnesses- that is to say their testimony can be trusted - One of the evidences for this that is often overlooked is the human failings and frailty not hidden in the accounts of the Gospels.

The Jewish leaders themselves could not discount the spiritual and supernatural origins of Christ's miracles. They resorted to blaming demonic activity for being the source of the power of Christ.

So we see in the testimony of the Gospel ample evidence for the supernatural ministry Jesus performed. But Jesus himself pointed to something quite different. For Jesus it is the resurrection that is the ultimate evidence of his nature. When asked for the sign (by the Sadducees and Pharisees) he stated;

“A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none
will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away”.
Matt 16:4

This clearly points to the resurrection.

.N.D Anderson, Lawyer and professor of Oriental Law at the University of London is states;

“ The empty tomb stands, a veritable rock, as an essential evidence for the
resurrection. To suggest that it was not in fact empty at all, as some have
done, seems to me ridiculous. It is a matter of history that the apostles from
the very beginning made many converts in Jerusalem, hostile as it was, by
proclaiming the glad news that Christ has risen from the grave- and they did it
within a short walk from the sepulchre. Any one of their hearers could have
visited the tomb and come back again between lunch and whatever may have been
the equivalent of afternoon tea.”

There have been many apologetic books written which clearly articulate arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. Time and space constraints do not permit the author to include these in this text but some titles are included in Appendix A.

The historical Jesus debate brings into sharp focus the distinction between worldly wisdom and Godly wisdom. A key aspect of Godly wisdom is that it starts with an act of faith, the fear of the Lord. Godly wisdom presupposes the existence of God, acknowledges God as God and gives him due reverence and awe.

Human wisdom, often referred to as knowledge is described in terms of its finiteness. That is to say, it has a beginning and an end. According to scripture they will ultimately pass away.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where
there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass
away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection
comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I
thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put
childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully,
even as I am fully known. 1CO 13:8-12

In the book of Proverbs, the book which speaks more on the subject of wisdom than any other book, wisdom is frequently anthropomorphised. We meet this Wisdom personified in the New Testament. It says in 1Corinthians 1:30;

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us
wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
1Co 1:

The Jesus Seminar and those like it describe themselves as rescuers of the church from fundamentalism. Their methods themselves (largely based on form criticism) are for the most part unscientific.

According to the pocket dictionary of Biblical studies;

"the movement is possibly best known for their voting on the authenticity of
Jesus' sayings according to probability.
Different coloured beads are used
in the voting corresponding to each level (of authenticity).

Red - Jesus
did say this.
Pink - Jesus probably did say this.
Gray - possibly his
idea but not his words
Black indicates that Jesus did not say this."

By this method the Jesus seminar managed to reduce the “true sayings of Jesus” to only 20 % of those recorded in the Bible. The principles of sound research method would decry the use of such a method as unscientific. Indeed, the opinion of peers, even supposedly expert opinion, is considered a source of non-scientific data.

For many the historical Jesus debate is a reinterpretation of scripture which began in the primordial soup of Existentialism. It has taken root in the fertile soil of our postmodernist culture, and reconciles religion seamlessly with evolution. It places mankind back at the centre of his universe. One only has to browse the bookshelves of secular book-stores to see how pervasive interest is in the movement.

Contributions to the debate

Australia’s most vocal contributor to the thinking in the movement has been John Shelby Spong. Whilst rejected as heretical by most evangelical Christians, his message of “tolerance” and a new Jesus has won him the support of many disgruntled churchgoers.

His theology is clearly seen from the titles of his books;

 “Rescuing the Church from Fundamentalism.”
 “ A new Christianity for a new world.”
 “Why Christianity must change or die.”
 “Born of a woman.”

He consistently denies the biblical record, does not believe in the virgin birth or the deity of Christ. He is not alone. In the same manner, revisionist writer Geza Vanes contributed “ The Authentic Gospel of Jesus”.

Less well known is the work of Barbara Thierny, Jesus the Man. According to the precis of her book she comes to the conclusion that Jesus;

1. married Mary Magdalene and fathered a family
2. was crucified on the cross, but did not die on the cross and was revived later in the cave.
3. Was born out of wedlock to a betrothed and thus officially “virgin” woman
4. Was rejected by his strict Jewish religious sect for his actions in promoting the rights of the poor, the sick and the gentiles.

Interestingly her methodology relies on reading hidden meanings from the text and probably would make a good case study on hermeneutics. Even further out on the fringe is the work of Kersten Holger, titled Jesus lived in India; his unknown life before and after the crucifixion. According to Holger Jesus;

1. Is buried in Kashmir.
2. In the later part of his life adopted Buddhism.
3. After his resurrection Jesus returned to Kashmir where he died at an old age.

What is key to this debate is to see that what we are dealing with is neither new or unexpected. Nothing takes God by surprise. Since the dawn of time the enemy of all Christians has been taking what God originally made and substituting it with his own fake. In this case Gods wisdom is substituted by worldly “commonsense”, which really is no sense at all when viewed in the light of the supernatural subject matter. There is nothing new under the sun.

 The heresy of Apollinarianism in the late fourth Century tried to make Christ out to be only part God and part man.
 Docetism argued that Christ had somehow only the semblance of humanity and deity and was in nature was an unreal figure.
 Arianism which argue that Christ was a created being and therefore not part of the Godhead is most visibly embodied in the teaching of Jehovah’s witnesses today.
 Various other heresies argued that Christ had two natures running side by side, or that Christ was a hybrid new creature, a blend of divine and mortal.

Origen, in his work On first principles argues for the deity of Jesus by demonstrating that Christ is pre-eminent and pre-existent even over creation. He quotes as his argument the writing and testimony of Paul.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and
invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were
created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things
hold together. COL 1:15-17

C.F.D. Moule Fellow of Clare College and professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge argues that Jesus is given four major titles which bear testimony to his identity.

 The Son of Man
 The Son of God
 Kurios (κύριος)
 Christ

Of these κύριος is the most significant as it implies headship and deity. In fact the statement Jesus is Lord was deemed to be so sacred by the early church that outsiders were asked to leave the room before believers spoke the words together. As a symbol of unity. It was this declaration that saw many Christians martyred at the hands of the Romans.

Conclusion: The Christ at the heart of Christology

Dr Ken Chant acknowledges that the difficulty with arguing with followers of this “new ism” is that they do not acknowledge the scriptures as being the authoritative God inspired word of God. It is this scripture which shows us how to react to this new heresy.

Paul writes to Timothy saying;

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced
of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you
have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation
through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful
for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the
man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:14-17

The antidote to the historical Jesus heresies is threefold.
1. What is needed are churches which know and teach the Gospel.
2. That this teaching is directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
3. That this teaching and empowering is evidenced by lives of ordinary men and women being supernaturally changed, transformed, renewed and made whole.

In all these things Christ must be preeminent. So that with Martin Luther we can say;

“Here I stand, I can do no other.”


Andrew Heard; Sermon: 1 Cor 15 The Key to Meaning # 2
Borthwick. P. Six dangerous questions to transform your worldview. 1996. IVP. Illinois
Chant K. Rev. Dr. Emmanuel. 1997. Vision Christian College. NSW
Craig Dr. W.R. Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar. Faith and Mission 15 (1998)
Davis. S.T. Why the historical Jesus matters. Theology News and Notes. 1999. Fuller Theological Seminary.
Holger.K. Jesus lived in India; his unknown life before and after the Crucifixion. 1986 Element Shaftesbury. Dorset.
Macdowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Vol.1. 1979. Thomas Nelson. Vancouver.
Morris. T. V. The Logic of God Incarnate.1987. Cornell University Press. London
Moule. C.D.F. The origin of Christology. 1977. Cambridge University Press. Sydney.
Origen. On first principles translated in Norris A. R. The Christological Controversy. 1980. Fortress press. Philadelphia.
Patzia. A.G. & Petrotta A.J. Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies. 2002. InterVarsity Press. Leicester, England
Richards, L. 1998. Every miracle in the Bible. Includes indexes. T. Nelson: Nashville
Shelley B.L. Church History in plain language. 1995. Word . 2nd edition. USA
The NIV Study Bible 1995, The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids MI
Theirney. B. Jesus the man. Doubleday books. 1992. Moorebank. NSW.
Welman.J.C. Kruger S.J. Research Methodology for the business and administrative sciences. 2001. Oxford University press. Cape Town

Appendix A Useful apologetics resources

F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1960),
.McDowell, J. 1997, c1991. Josh McDowell's handbook on apologetics (electronic ed.). Thomas Nelson: Nashville
Clifford, Ross. 1996 Leading lawyers case for the Resurrection. Albatross Books. Canada
Macdowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Vol.1. 1979. Thomas Nelson. Vancouver.
McDowell, J., & Stewart, D. D. 1993. Answers to tough questions. Originally published: San Bernardino, Calif. : Here's Life Publishers, c1980. T. Nelson Publishers: Nashville

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