Today is actually Good Friday. My son is out of school today. By rights I should have him, like I did last year. I still have about half of the Easter candy I bought for him. I should throw it out. But it is one of the few things I have left of him.
The Christian story is that God sent His only Son to Earth as Jesus. And Jesus was somehow both God and Man, and lived a sinless life even though He was entirely human. We even have him making a mistake, though not a sinful one. We know that He once had to repeat His prayers to have them answered. Dying on the cross, He asked His Father a question that I think anyone who lives very long has asked. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
When I was a child, I really didn’t understand Easter. I knew it was about bunnies and eggs and something about Jesus dying and coming back from the dead. And while it was a great story, I didn’t understand how in the world it saved me from sin. I’ve heard many and many a theory, and I know some are satisfied by this story, and some by that. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it lately. Especially since each passing day I become more and more afraid I will never see my son alive again.
I will say three things here.
- 1) Some say Jesus never existed. Let’s look the historical evidence to see if that is plausible, as some say about figures like Krishna or Osiris.
- 2) Some ask “which Jesus”? There were after all many claiming to be Messiah in those troubled times, as Josephus records.
- 3) Did Jesus ever claim to be God, or did that belief grow over time?
If Jesus was merely a myth (in the modern, not the scholarly sense), then there could still be profound truths in the Christian religion, but like many ancient religions, those truths are based only on stories. So let’s look at the historical evidence we have.
The painting I’ve shared would have been created two hundred years after Jesus crucifixion. A quick Google search shows the most prominent person to have died roughly 200 years ago was Napoleon. The next most prominent was the poet John Keats. Now, I grant we live in different times, so perhaps this logic doesn’t apply, but if the Syrians of 235 AD were willing to paint Jesus, it tells me that at least the stories about Jesus life and miracles were around at that time. I’m inclined to think they would not be worshipping someone who had not existed at all. Having said that…..the stories of Molly Pitcher (a woman who purportedly carried water to the thirsty American soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth and took her husbands place firing the cannon when her husband died) cannot be proven to have existed. However, there is a diary of a Continental soldier who reports a woman was “reaching for a cartridge” at the battle field and she was narrowly missed by a cannon ball. He does not name her. But while there may or may not have been a Molly Pitcher, a woman was there in the thick of the fight. https://www.history.com/news/who-was-molly-pitcher Working with this example, I think we can extrapolate that if we have paintings of Jesus in 235, likely there was someone running around doing some of the things Jesus was reported as doing.
So someone existed who did some remarkable things, or said some remarkable things, and people were worshipping this person two centuries later. But it is rightly pointed out that there were many claiming to be the Messiah in the First Century. Josephus lists several in his histories. He even mentions Jesus, but the paragraph where Jesus is mentioned is held suspect by some scholars. As far as I can discover, the oldest complete copy of Josephus dates from the eleventh century, though there are incomplete Latin copies that go back to the sixth. Some believe the paragraph about Jesus was either inserted, or at least greatly exaggerated by Christian scribes. The Jews, who had literally religiously scribed the Old Testament and kept it astoundingly accurate (as far as transcribing) over the centuries, made no efforts we know of to preserve Josephus. So we are back to square one. Somebody did or said something, but who? And what can we really know about them? Is it not likely (say critics) that the New Testament was at least as likely doctored as Josephus?
Before moving on, I look at one more site, wondering if I should break out my Evidence That Demands a Verdict or just surrender this point to my ignorance. I submit for your edification this website: https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2019/02/15/the-earliest-new-testament-manuscripts/
Looking up several more websites to corroborate (as best as a tired blogger can) I find there are several verses from the Gospel of John that we have from no later date than 175 AD AD, granted, 140 years later, but still basically written by a scribe who may have theoretically had a chance to talk to someone who had talked with the apostles. This would be less than eighty years from the time the Apostle John died. While this does not prove the Gospels, it does prove that we had the story of Jesus trial no later than 175 AD. The Romans were a very practical people, and the archives of that time would have been easy to look up. The Roman’s disputed Jesus divinity, but not his existence, nor that of Pontius Pilate, who is mentioned in this papyrus. We have here John 18: 31-33, and John 18:37-38, so by this time we have Pilate asking Jesus if he were king of the Jews, and Jesus responding, “A king am I. For this I have been born, and (for this) I have come into the world.”
So our earliest manuscript does not have Jesus claiming to be God (though there is also nothing here where he denies it). But he is making claims to be a king, and something special. So what about those who say he never claimed to be God, and that was a myth that grew later?
I wrestled with this one for many years. Lots of prayer, lots of Bible reading, and listening to many a sermon. You see, my father was a Mason. Thirty second degree Scottish Rite. To put it into perspective…..there are thirty three degrees, thirty third degree being the top one. He tells me he had been taught that Jesus was only a man…very holy, very special, but not God. So I wrestled with this a long time.
There are two verses in the Gospels (yes, the Apostles call Jesus God, but in my mind what counted was what Jesus himself said. Frankly, Jesus wasn’t running around saying “I am God” all the time). In John 8:58 Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” I didn’t understand this until a pastor gave a sermon on “I AM.” Evidently Jesus was referring to Exodus 3:14, when God tells Moses His name is I Am. In effect to those questioning him, this was the same as saying “I am God,” hence they were going to stone him for blasphemy. And at his trial Jesus answers the prosecutor’s questions about whether he is the Son of God (Luke 22: 66-71) with statements that sound like “yes” to me. And they sounded enough like it to the Sanhedrin. They convicted him of blasphemy. So to me the question becomes….did Jesus say these things, or were they added by scribes, like the statement in Josephus? And how early do we have these statements in print? Lets start with the last question, as it likely is the easiest to answer. We have a “wealth of scriptural evidence” so lets do some digging.
The best I can find, the latest we have evidence of the manuscripts saying “Before Abraham was, I AM,” is between 175 (there is that number again) and 225 AD. I can’t perfectly pin down the other text, but we have the Gospel of Luke complete by the fourth century. So whether it evolved or started from the beginning, we have the Gospels themselves with the claim in 225 AD, with it being Canonical in most churches by the fourth century.
So what are we to make of all this? I cannot tell you what to think or believe. I’m just giving you the very vague scholarship of a tired blogger. If you believe, then God bless you. If you believe something else, then I simply pray that the True God Who is bigger than my beliefs or confusions will lead you on a kinder path than I have walked. And that our illusions of God are shattered, and replaced with a greater Truth every day. And if you believe there is no God, we are still children of the same Creation that made us all. Happy Easter to one and all.
I really appreciate this post — and you sharing part of your journey!
Also if you haven’t read this book: ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
It is absolutely wonderful in discussing the “was Jesus a real person?” question.
(and as far as I know, it’s not a pen-name: His last name really is Aslan! Let’s go to Narnia!!!)
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I’d go in a heartbeat if I could. I need to find that and read it