So you think Jesus is a legend Part II
We are all familiar with stories that grow over time. The first time a dad tells his kids the story about how he made the game-winning touchdown, he said that he escaped two tackles to run ten yards into the end zone. But by the time he’s telling his grand kids, he escaped nine tackles and ran the ball fifty yards into the end zone as time expired at the state championship. Is this what happened with Jesus? Over the centuries, the story about Jesus became more and more exaggerated: first he was just a good guy, then he became a sort of demigod and eventually God Himself.
This is one of the most common ways that people try to get around Lewis’ argument. And if this theory is correct, then it really would undo the whole argument. So what we need to do is figure out what Jesus thought about Himself: did He see Himself as divine, or not?
As soon as the question is asked, the murmuring of the skeptics begins: “How could we even know that? It’s just my best guess against your best guess. And that’s all they really are: guesses!” What people don’t realize is that historians have developed a method for determining what things in history are true:
- First, we need eyewitnesses. If you weren’t able to watch the World Cup but you want to know what happened, what do you do? You ask someone who did see what happened.
- Second, we trust reliable eyewitnesses. If some ancient source, like Tacitus, has a consistent track record, then we generally believe what they say. The same holds true in our modern court of law: if a witness is a generally reliable person, his testimony counts as evidence.
- Third, we compare witnesses to other witnesses. We become even more confident that a witness is telling the truth if what they’re saying fits together with what other people say, and they help explain one another. For instance, if one witness says he saw the suspect escaping with a limp at 6:50 PM, and a second witness says he saw the suspect drop a bowling ball on his foot at 6:45 PM, then the two stories seem to confirm one another, for they help make sense of one another.
- Four, we apply tests of authenticity. Witnesses are by default a source of knowledge on the past, and even more so when they confirm one another’s stories on accident (as illustrated above). But we have knock-down proof historically when a record has certain earmarks of historical reliability. One example of this is the test of embarrassment: if a witness reports something embarrassing to himself, it is most likely true. Why? Because he has no motivation to make it up. If I posted on some social media platform that I prayed for three hours a day, one could naturally be skeptical. However, if I post that I failed my logic exam, I’m almost certainly telling the truth, for there is simply no reason for me to make up my own failures.
So where is the evidence we have to examine when it comes to Jesus? Well, we find it mainly in the New Testament! What most people, both Christians and non-Christians, fail to understand is that the book can be examined from a strictly historical perspective. In other words, you don’t have to assume that it is the error-free Word of God. You can read it as you would any other historical book. Dr. William Lane Craig has had the same experience of people being confused on this point. He explains how we look into the evidence for Jesus:
Now the first thing to do in order to conduct a historical investigation of Jesus is to assemble our sources. Jesus of Nazareth is referred to in a range of ancient sources inside and outside the New Testament, including Christian, Roman, and Jewish sources. This is really quite extraordinary when you reflect on how obscure a figure Jesus was. He had at most a three-year public life as an itinerant Galilean preacher. Yet we have far more information about Jesus than we do for most major figures of antiquity.
The most important of these historical sources have been collected into the New Testament. References to Jesus outside the New Testament tend to confirm what we read in the gospels, but they don’t really tell us anything new…
Now I find that many laymen don’t understand this procedure. They think that if you examine the New Testament writings themselves rather than look at sources outside the New Testament, then somehow you’re reasoning in a circle to prove the Bible…
But that’s not at all what historians are doing when they examine the New Testament. They’re not treating the Bible as a holy, inspired book and trying to prove it’s true by quoting it. Rather they’re treating the New Testament just like any other collection of ancient documents and investigating whether these documents are historically reliable.
So it is entirely proper to look at the New Testament. But another question emerges:
Do We Have the Right Bible?
A second concern, before looking at the New Testament, is whether or not what we today call the Bible has been corrupted over time. Yes. As Kreeft explains:
The state of the manuscripts is very good. Compared with any and all other ancient documents, the New Testament stands up as ten times more sure. For instance, we have five hundred different copies earlier than A.D. 500. The next most reliable ancient text we have is the Iliad, for which we have only fifty copies that date from 500 years or less after its origin. We have only one very late manuscript of Tacitus’s Annals, but no one is reluctant to treat that as authentic history. If the books of the New Testament did not contain accounts of miracles or make radical, uncomfortable claims on our lives, they would be accepted by every scholar in the world. In other words, it is not objective, neutral science but subjective prejudice or ideology that fuels skeptical Scripture scholarship. The manuscripts that we have, in addition to being old, are also mutually reinforcing and consistent. There are very few discrepancies and no really important ones. And all later discoveries of manuscripts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have confirmed rather than refuted previously existing manuscripts scripts in every important case. There is simply no other ancient text in nearly as good a shape.
So now that we have seen that the Bible we have today has been copied accurately, it is time to apply the three tests used earlier on Scripture.
First: Were the Gospel Writers Eyewitnesses?
Do we have any reason to think that the Gospels were written during the lifetime of those who saw him which would mean the authors could be actual eyewitnesses? There are four relevant events that the New Testament fails to mention, which they would have wanted to include if they had already happened at the time of writing:
- The destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24), and so the authors would have been eager to confirm his prediction if it had already happened. Plus, it would have theological significance, as it would confirm the end of temple sacrifices since Jesus had been offered up as a sacrifice.
- The Gospels fail to note the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, which the Christians would have been eager to interpret as a judgment on the Jews.
- Nothing is said about the deaths of Paul and Peter, the two main characters of Acts.
- Nothing is said of James’s death, who was martyred in AD 62.
If a book on the history of New York City that was otherwise very reliable suddenly failed to account for the attack on 9/11 or any subsequent event, what would your conclusion be? That it was published on September 10th, 2001 or earlier! Similarly, we can know that much of the NT was written before A.D. 70 – well within the lifetime of eyewitnesses.
Second: Were the Gospel Writers Reliable Witnesses?
Remember: the point here is to ask whether they have a good track record at telling the truth. Did they get their facts right?
1. They got locations right:
While late noncanonical forgeries written from outside the area of Palestine seldom mention any city other than Jerusalem (the one famous city that everyone knew was in Israel), the gospel writers alone included the specific names of lesser first-century towns and villages. The gospel writers mentioned or described Aenon, Arimathea, Bethphage, Caesarea Philippi, Cana, Chorazin, Dalmanutha, Emmaus, Ephraim, Magadan, Nain, Salim, and Sychar. Some of these villages are so obscure that only people familiar with the area would even know they existed.
2. They got government processes right:
Luke accurately described the government that existed in first-century Palestine under Roman rule. His account demonstrates that he was writing at the time and place he claimed:  He correctly described two paths to Roman citizenship in Acts 22:28.  He correctly described the process by which accused criminals were brought to trial in Acts 24:1–9.  He correctly described the manner in which a man could invoke his Roman citizenship and appeal his case to Caesar in Acts 25:6–12.  He correctly described the manner in which a prisoner could be held by a Roman soldier and the conditions when imprisoned at one’s own expense in Acts 28:16 and Acts 28:30–31.
Much more could be said; but these writers seemed to know what they were talking about.
Third: Do the Witnesses’ Stories Cohere With One Another?
Do we have a parallel to one witness saying he saw the suspect walk with a limp, and another witness saying he saw him drop a bowling ball on his foot? Yes, and in some cases it is even more complex!
Matthew 8:16 “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.”
Why wait until night?
Mark 1:21 clarifies that it was the Sabbath that day. “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.”
Matthew 14:1-2 “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Why would Herod feel the need to tell his servants what he thought about Jesus?
Luke 8:3 and Acts 13:1 clarify that members of his household were followers of Jesus. “and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.”
Luke 23:3-4 “And Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.’ Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no guilt in this man.’”
Why didn’t Pilate find guilt in Jesus if he claimed explicitly to be a king?
John 18:36-37 “ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’ Then Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.’”
Matthew 26:67-68 “Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’”
Why do they ask him to prophesy about who hit him?
Luke 22:64 “They also blindfolded him.”
Mark 6:31, right before feeding of five thousand: “And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
Why are so many people coming to Jesus?
John 6:2 “they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” They came because of miracles.
John 6:5, 8-9 “Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat? …One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?’”
Why does Jesus ask Philip and Andrew about how to feed the people?
Luke 9:10 “And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.” John 1:44 “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” Jesus asked them because it was their hometown.
Review of Evidence So Far
The Bible was written by eyewitnesses who were generally reliable and whose testimonies cohere with one another. Therefore, when they tell us that Jesus claimed to be God, we ought to believe them. This isn’t guesswork; we are relying on people who heard what he said and wrote it down.
Furthermore, since they wrote while other eyewitnesses were still alive, they wouldn’t have been able to get away with lying about what Jesus said. (Just like someone couldn’t get away with lying about there being three plane crashes on 9/11.)
Plus, one of the main reasons the disciples were persecuted in the early church is because of their confession that “Jesus is Lord.” (The mantra of the Roman government was “Caesar is Lord.”) If Jesus didn’t claim this for himself, why not just say he was a prophet and avoid the persecution? This massive claim of authority had to have come from Jesus Himself.
If this is all we had, we would have ample evidence to think Jesus truly considered himself to be divine on the basis of the reliability of the witnesses. But we still have one more test we can apply!
Fourth: Specific Authentic Texts
Pretend for a minute that none of the above evidence existed. Suppose that the manuscript evidence was weak, the Gospels were written late, and we had several instances in which we knew the Gospel writers flat out lied about what they saw. Could we still know what Jesus thought about His identity?
Shockingly, yes. Again, this might surprise people. But even in some of the most unreliable sources, if we have clear marks of authenticity, we can discern the truth. For instance, suppose your brother is a notorious liar. He lies about where he is driving off to with his friends, he lies about his grades, and he cheats on tests. It would often be difficult to know if he was telling the truth. But would it be impossible? No, of course not. We can tell even when liars are telling the truth. And again, it’s when there are certain marks of authenticity, such as when your brother shares a story that is embarrassing and vulnerable about himself. If he were to break down in tears and tell you that last night he and his friends snuck out and he got mugged and had all his money stolen, it would be ridiculously skeptical to doubt him. In the same way, certain places in which Jesus claims divinity have these “no way this could be a lie” marks of authenticity about them. Let’s look at three ways in which Jesus explicitly claims to be divine, and three in which he implicitly makes the claim; and for all six, we will also explain why these claims were authentic (really said by Jesus).
First, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the Christ. (Christ is not a last name; it means “anointed one” or “Messiah.”) In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison and sends people to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (verse 3). Jesus answered in verses 4-6: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
How does Jesus claim to be Messiah? In two ways. As Dr. Craig says, “Jesus’ answer to John is a blend of prophecies from Isaiah 35:5-6; 26:19; 61:1, the last of which explicitly mentions being God’s anointed one,” which is what Messiah means. For reference, Isaiah 61:1 says “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Second, the list of evidences that he is the Messiah is the same one found “in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Jewish sect that lived at Qumran at the time of Jesus (4Q521).”
And why think it is authentic? Largely due to the criterion of embarrassment: John the Baptist, one of the most respected martyrs of the early church, is seen to be expressing doubt about Jesus, his own cousin! If the early church were to make up what John said, they would have him be a character who was confident from the beginning.
Does this mean Jesus was claiming to be divine? What is the significance of being the Messiah? Isaiah 9:6 describes the Messiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” One of the Messiah’s names is “Mighty God”!
Second, Jesus claimed to be God’s Unique Son. In Matthew 11:27, he says “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This text is almost certainly authentic, for the Christians’ great emphasis is that each of us can know Jesus, and yet this verse says “no one knows the Son except the Father”! Furthermore, in Mark 13:32, Jesus says concerning his return: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This is even more shocking: why on earth would the early church want to insert this language into Jesus’ mouth? It must be authentic.
What’s significant about claiming to be God’s Son? The first passage suggests that the Son is the unique revelation of God to the world – the Son “chooses to reveal” the Father to people. And the second passage lays out a “scale of being,” as it were. He says “no one knows,” then he adds that angels do not know, and then not even the Son knows, but only the Father. This suggests that the Son is above the angels.
Third, Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man. “It’s very likely that Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man. This was Jesus’ favorite self-description and is the title found most frequently in the gospels (over eighty times). Yet remarkably, this title is found only once outside the gospels in the rest of the New Testament (Acts 7:56). That shows that the designation of Jesus as ‘The Son of Man’ was not a title that arose in later Christianity and was then written back into the traditions about Jesus.”
What does it mean to be the Son of Man? The primary text explaining this is Daniel 7:13-14 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” The Son of Man is the one who receives an everlasting dominion, an eternal kingdom, glory, and universal worship. To ascribe any of these things to anyone other than God would be heresy in the Jewish mind.
First, Jesus claimed to forgive sins. Jesus claimed in many different parables, most of which are considered authentic by even the most skeptical scholars, to have the authority and right to forgive sins. As C. S. Lewis noted: “He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences.” For instance: “He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured.” What does this mean? “This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.”
Second, Jesus preached the Kingdom of God. “One of the undisputed facts about Jesus is that the centerpiece of His preaching was the coming of the kingdom of God… Was He merely a herald of that kingdom or did He have a more significant role to play? Here we encounter the very interesting saying of Jesus concerning His twelve disciples’ role in the coming kingdom: ‘Truly, I say to you, in the new world … you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28 RSV).” Craig explains that the saying is “likely to be authentic” for two reasons: first, it describes an earthly kingdom that did not immediately materialize, as the early disciples expected and hoped for; second, it seems to depict Judas, who betrayed Jesus, as one of the twelve future rulers.
What’s the significance? If the 12 disciples are the 12 judges, then who is King? Without a doubt: it is Jesus. By calling the 12 disciples, he is imitating God in calling the 12 tribes. He is setting up His new form of government with Himself as king over all.
Third, Jesus claims to be at the right hand of God. In Mark 14:61-64, we read “Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death.”
This passage is generally accepted as well, for it is at the core of Mark’s passion narrative. And in it, Jesus claims to sit at the right hand of God, which would be utterly blasphemous for a mere man to say.
The eyewitnesses were early, for they didn’t record a number of things they would have wanted to record if they had only happened. They were reliable, getting a number of political and geographical facts correct. Their stories cohere with one another and explain one another. Thus, we ought to accept Jesus’ many claims to divinity as being genuine.
Yet even if one chooses to ignore the general reliability of the New Testament, we have seen that in many passages Jesus claims, without a doubt, to be the Messiah (whose name is “Mighty God”), the Son of God who uniquely reveals God to the world, the Son of Man who receives an eternal kingdom. By forgiving sins, He shows himself to have God’s authority; by preaching the Kingdom, he implies that He is the true King; and by sitting at the right hand of God, He claims a unique, heavenly, divine nature.
 Craig, On Guard, 185.
 Kreeft, 1929-1935.
 (Josephus, Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, Kindle locations 28589-28592)
 Wallace, 3229-3233
 Wallace, 3396-3404
 Examples adapted from Wallace, 3074-3082
 Craig, On Guard, 199.
 Ibid. Criag, On Guard, 199.
 Craig, On Guard, 206-207.
 Lewis, “The Shocking Alternative,” Mere Christianity, 50.
 Craig, On Guard, 210.