I’m about as emotional as they come, so when the Lord grabbed my heart he reached right past my brain to do it. I knew him before I knew anything about him. But I’ve always been an intellectual and I knew–even at 13–that if I was going to do this Jesus thing, I was going to do it all out. And if I was going to do it all out, it wasn’t going to be because it felt good to think about Jesus. No, if I was going to give my life to him, I needed to know that he really was God. So I began investigating. I read the Catechism and the Bible and pretty much everything on the internet and determined that it came down to this: the men who lived with Jesus, who heard him preach and watched him heal and saw him die and touched his risen body–those guys died to tell that story. It was more complicated than that, of course, but that evidence was enough for me–to begin with.
I’ve spent the ensuing 16 years fleshing it out. What can we know about Jesus? What claims did he make? Where could the body have gone? So here, for your Easter pleasure, is a many-part series on the divinity of Christ. Because if Jesus isn’t God, my life is a serious waste.
The majority of what we know about Jesus we get from the Gospels. So any argument we make is going to draw heavily from those texts–texts that were clearly written by biased men who were trying to prove that Jesus was God. And yet historians would agree that the Gospels are relatively trustworthy for the major themes and events of Christ’s life. Certainly, a non-Christian reader can’t be expected to believe that Jesus actually raised the dead and walked on water. But it’s clear that he did something unexplainable there, that these are not mere fabrications, and this clarity comes back to the reliability of the Gospels.
1. The Gospels were written shortly after the life of Christ.
A quick Google search will show that the four canonical Gospels were written between 30 and 70 years after the life of Christ. To our modern mind, that’s a lifetime. If I waited to write about my time as a hobo until I was 90 you’d be hard-pressed to believe that it was a terribly accurate account.
Kinda like how all parents on the planet can recite this entire book from memory.
But the Gospels weren’t written in our information-saturated culture. They were written in an oral culture by a people whose very existence depended on their ability to pass down the story. Men in this culture would sometimes memorize the entire Torah; even today, students of the Talmud perform impressive feats of memory that seem impossible to the rest of us. When the survival of your culture hinges on the ability of ordinary men and women to tell the stories that define you as a people, an excellent memory becomes essential. In the ancient Near East, where most people were illiterate, storytelling was more about truth than about amusement.
To give it a little context, the biography of Alexander the Great was written about 400 years after his death and historians consider it to be historically accurate. In a culture like that, writing 30 years later was practically live tweeting the life of Christ.
2. The Evangelists had access to eyewitness accounts.
When you read the Gospels, they don’t read like fables. They don’t read like legends the way stories of medieval Saints (or apocryphal Gospels) do. They aren’t painted with broad strokes, full of generalizations and exaggerated events. Certainly, a secular historian could discount some of the more impressive miracles as legendary, but even if you take those out what remains is a remarkably detailed account.
Abraham Bloemaert’s The Four Evangelists
There are so many details–and unnecessary ones at that–that the reader is left with the sense that he’s reading an eyewitness report. Tradition tells us that Mark was writing Peter’s account and Matthew and John were writing from their own memories. Luke the historian, on the other hand, combined the testimonies of a number of different sources to create his Gospel. But throughout we see little details like the time of day or the number of years someone had suffered or the man running away naked.
Graham Greene’s faith rested in part on these details. When asked what made him a Christian, he answered that aside from meeting Padre Pio, it was the scene in John’s Gospel:
“where the beloved disciple is running with Peter because they’ve heard that the rock has been rolled away from the tomb, and describing how John manages to beat Peter in the race. … It just seems to me to be first-hand reportage, and I can’t help believing it.”
Simplistic as it sounds, there’s much to be said for examining the feel of the Gospels. Particularly when compared with fabricated accounts from the same era, the Gospels stand very clearly as the product of eyewitness accounts.
3. The Evangelists couldn’t have lied.
Despite the secrecy that shrouds some of Jesus’ claims and even some of his miracles, the majority of Jesus’ actions were too public for the Evangelists to lie; there was too much accountability. Think about it: if they had made up the feeding of the 5000, somebody would have objected: “Dude, I was there. There were 40 of us and we brought our own snacks.” Or the raising of Lazarus: “Wait, that was me! I wasn’t dead, I was just napping!” Jesus didn’t work miracles in secret, for the most part. He raised the widow of Nain’s son in the middle of his funeral procession and healed blind men while standing in a crowd. There were too many witnesses to too many events–if the Evangelists had been lying, somebody would have called them out on it.
And while Jesus said many things only to his disciples, his most outrageous claims of divinity came when he had a large and hostile audience. “Before Abraham was, I am,” he said to a crowd of Jews two chapters after declaring that unless they gnawed on his flesh they would burn in hell. If Jesus had just been a “nice guy” talking about love and friendship and forgiveness, those who knew him would have been furious when they heard these words put into his mouth a few decades later. The Evangelists couldn’t have gotten away with such a dramatic change in the character of someone so famous, someone who had boasted so many followers. They may have exaggerated their claims but the general shape of the person they describe must be accurate.
4. They wouldn’t have lied if they could.
I mean, seriously, have you read the Gospels? The Evangelists don’t exactly make themselves and their buddies out to be heroes. What exactly do they have to gain by enshrining their own stupidity and cowardice as Gospel truth? Because really, the Apostles are kind of the doofus all-stars of the Gospels. Jesus predicts the passion and they call shotgun. Or they ask him who’s the best. Or they tell him they’re going to save him (sure, Peter). How about Mark 8:15-16—like they think they’re in trouble for not bringing snacks right after the multiplication of loaves and fishes? They run and hide when he’s being crucified. They don’t buy it when he rises. If you’re going to make up a story about yourself, why look like an idiot?
St. Bartholomew was skinned alive rather than deny that the story was true.
And why make up a faith that’s so hard? If you’re a liar, why set such high standards for yourself? A made-up faith lets you do whatever you want. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
“If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier and simpler. But it IS NOT. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.” (Mere Christianity)
But really it comes down to this: why would they die for a lie? Of the surviving 11 Apostles, 10 are martyred. They tried to kill St. John, but he wouldn’t die. Why would you make up a story where you sound like an idiot and then give your life to prove that it’s true? People might die for things they don’t know are lies, but they don’t die to prove a lie they made up, especially if they get nothing out of it.
5. The Gospels are telling essentially the same story.
People like to cast doubt on the truth of the Gospels by pointing out that they disagree on details like the date of certain events or their order. But remember that while oral culture is extraordinarily reliable in terms of the big picture, minor details are subject to human error. When we consider the genre of ancient biography, we see that the purpose of a biography in the ancient world wasn’t to give a play-by-play of a person’s life, the way it is now, but to tell the meaning of a person’s life. I’m sure that if you had sat John down and complained to him that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all said that Jesus died during Passover, not on Passover eve, he would have shrugged. What’s significant here is that Jesus is our Paschal Lamb, not the exact date of his demise.
When you compare the Gospels, you find that they’re similar enough to confirm one another and different enough to be real. Fabricated accounts tend either to be identical or contradictory; they were either prepared in advance to match and are too good to be true or they’re totally inconsistent (think: the story of Susannah in Daniel 13). When two people who were both eyewitnesses tell a story, the two accounts are mostly the same but not identical–just like the Gospels.
6. Today’s copies are accurate.
It doesn’t do us any good, though, if the Gospels were originally true but were so embellished that they can’t be trusted. There are those who argue that the original copies of the Gospel didn’t make any claims of divinity for Christ but that the idea of his divinity was inserted later by Christians trying to set themselves apart from Jews. So we have to ask: is the Bible I’m reading today essentially the same as what was written nearly 2000 years ago?
Fragment of the Gospel of Matthew from c. 250 AD
This is a fairly easy question to answer since we have very early copies, some from as early as the second century. The earlier the copies, of course, the fewer times they’ve been copied over and the less room there is for scribal error. And we have a large number of copies to compare to one another, a comparison that shows significant agreement between different manuscripts. If we had some Gospels of Mark that don’t tell about the resurrection and some that say Jesus was a duck, we’d probably discount the whole thing. But, aside from a few minor alterations or omissions, our ancient manuscripts all say the same thing. That naturally helps us to believe they’re the same as the original.
Naturally, the authenticity of the Gospels doesn’t stand or fall on any of these points individually. “Proving” Christianity isn’t a scientific experiment but a historical one. Our purpose here is to see whether the case for the Gospels is compelling, whether all these facts build to a secular conviction that the Gospels have some historical merit. Taken together, it seems reasonable to assume that the Gospels can generally be trusted.
So the Evangelists knew what they were talking about, they told the truth, and it’s been pretty well-preserved over the centuries. Does that mean the Gospels are Gospel truth? Not at all. Exploring this from a secular perspective, all we’ve determined as that they’re fairly reliable sources for the major events of the life of Christ. So we’re not (yet) going to buy the miracles or the theological assertions of the evangelists. But as objective historians, we can get some general facts about this man from the Gospels:
- He was an Israelite
- He had a following
- His followers believed he had supernatural powers
- He questioned the status quo of the Jewish faith
- He changed the rules
- His followers believed he was the Messiah
- He claimed to be God
- He was crucified
- His body then disappeared
- His followers claimed that he rose from the dead
But that’s just the beginning of the investigation. Tune in next time when we ask: Was Jesus just a good guy?
This being a blog post, it’s obviously a pretty cursory discussion. If you’re interested in greater detail, I highly recommend Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.
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