Proof of Jesus

We were asked about the proof for Jesus existing and Jack wrote this brief reply. In Magnificent Obsession I dealt with this in some more detail – you can order the book in our resources section but meanwhile here is the first chapter…..

Jesus – the Man

1 –Man

“You endeavour to prove an incredible and well nigh impossible thing; that God endured to be born and become Man”  Trypho p. 232.

The Church has had as much difficulty in proving that Jesus was man, against those who denied it, as in proving that he was God, and both were equally evident”  Pascal no.307

Dear J,

Thanks for getting in touch.  It was a real privilege meeting you and hearing what you have to say.  Sorry that I wound you up a wee bit, but I am thankful that you have some passion for these very important subjects. Matthew Parris in a wonderful article in The Spectator critiquing declaring that the truth is the only thing that matters.   I meant what I said about Christopher Hitchens.  He was a brilliant writer and makes for superb entertaining reading.  However his book God is Not Great does really miss the point.  The first major mistake is in the title (an obvious cheap shot at the Islamic chant).  Normally a title should tell you what a book is about.  This one doesn’t.   Hitchen’s book is all about religion and humanities foibles and sins.  There is almost nothing about God in the book at all – after reading it I wanted to sue under the Trade Descriptions Act.  There was almost nothing about Jesus.  Of course Hitchens is not alone in this.  Many people, including those who profess to be religious make this major category error.  They talk about the church, culture and cultus but rarely mention God.  So people have responded to Hitchen’s book by talking about the wonders of Christianity, or Islam or whatever particular version of religion they espouse.   For example D’Souza’s book What’s so Great about Christianity? is a magnificent expose of the weakness of Hitchen’s arguments and demonstrates clearly the benefits that the USA in particular and the West in general has had from the Christian faith.  But it still leaves one with the impression that we are talking about a philosophy, a way of life, a religion.   As I pointed out to you, for me this misses the point.  You asked me why I believed.  I gave you lots of answers (the creation, the Bible, the church etc) but all of them only lead to the one ultimate answer.  I believe in and because of Jesus Christ.  

However to you that just begged the question.  Didn’t everyone just invent their ‘own personal Jesus’ (in the words of the Depeche Mode song covered by many from Johnny Cash to Marilyn Manson)?   Who is Jesus?  To some he is a religious icon, to others the first communist, to yet others the Godspell image conjures up visions of a 1960’s hippie chanting ‘peace and love’.  In our post-modern touchy feely world, Jesus is whoever we want him to be.  There is no objective reality at all. Hitchens of course recognises this  “Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one.  Religion is man made” (p10). Indeed. Religion is largely man made – humankinds vain attempt to buy a Stairway to Heaven (with apologies to Led Zep).  In that sense it matters not whether the religion involves god or gods, or is just the materialistic humanist philosophy of Hitchens et al – it is in effect Godless. But what if there was something different?  What if there was a religion that was not based on human rules and philosophy – one which was centred on a person – for real. Unless you are going to make the arrogant claim that you know everything, you do at least have to consider the possibility and look at the evidence. That is why I am writing you.  There is a real Jesus. 

There is (note the use of the present tense) a personal historical living Jesus. Most people have some awareness of the name, some idea associated with religion, some vague memory of a long haired hippy icon, or a barefooted white saintly figure in a children’s bible.  But the notion of Jesus being a real person, having lived in real time and space and still being alive today is quite frankly one that is to most people, including some professing Christians, way out of their reality zone.  Sometimes I have suggested that I know the Jesus is alive and real as much as I know that my wife is alive and real – remember how shocked you were when I first said that to you?  You were ready to send for the men with the white coats!  I accept that this claim is usually greeted with a snort of incredulity because quite clearly my physical senses prove my wife (or do they?…but we will not divert down that particular Matrix like rabbit warren just now) but I cannot demonstrate physically the person of Jesus Christ.  So in what sense can I possibly state with such confidence that I know him and that it is possible to have a relationship with him?  Let me begin by just simply asking the question – what if, instead of us reaching out to him, Jesus reached out to us?  I am not talking about you having a personal visitation in the middle of the night (how would you know that was real), I am talking about whether Jesus really did come to this earth and what that means.  

Forgive me for citing the Pope again – but as I am not a Catholic and certainly don’t accept that he, or indeed any other human being is infallible, perhaps you will let me away with it?!   Certainly what he says here is true: “For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events.  It does not tell stories symbolising suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth”[1]. That is why I have invited you to the Life of Jesus course.  The author John Dickson and his friends do a superb job of setting Jesus in the historical context of 1st Century Israel.   The reason this works, even for those who say they are not interested in history, is that it helps dispel the notion of Jesus as being some kind of mythical made up figure.   And it is very personal.

It is precisely because there is a personal real Jesus, that we are able to have a real personal relationship with him. You don’t begin with an imaginary relationship.  You begin with the facts and the reality of Jesus.  But you don’t stop there.  You then go on to how he relates to you and you relate to him.  The fisherman John said about his recording of the miracles of Jesus these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  That is why I am writing – so that you may believe that Jesus is, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Lets begin at the beginning (although as we will see, there is more to it than that). When did Jesus exist?  Did he really exist?  Hitchins assures us that “there was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus”[2]  This is typical of the kind of rhetoric of the New Atheists – anyone who was seriously trained in history would recognise it for what it is – ahistorical waffle, seeking to set up a meme, which at first the faithful buy into, and then transmit over the internet as somehow Gods own truth.   Bart Ehrman, no friend of biblical Christianity, has challenged this new approach.  Have a look at his Youtube trailer[3] for his book Did Jesus Exist?  He declares that Jesus “was a real person and we can know some things about him” and that the evidence for Jesus is “overwhelming”.   Dickson makes the point clearly “Profs Gerd Theisssen and Annette Merz of the University of Heidelberg in Germany – leading critical scholars and by no means advocates  of Christian apologetic write ‘the mentions of Jesus in ancient histories allay doubt about their historicity”[4]. Suffice it to say for just now, that the only reason that people will not accept the overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus is that they just really do not want him to exist.  

Do you remember the discussion we had in the sadly now defunct Borders in Cambridge?   After speaking about Jesus I was told by a Swedish teacher that Jesus had come from another planet and that English Lords were descended from him – hence the reason they were called Lord!  I sincerely hope he was not a lecturer at the University!  After him someone challenged him in some detail on the writings of Tacitus and Josephus as evidence for Jesus.  He certainly knew what he was talking about and his comments were astute, knowledgeable and politely put.  Indeed I learnt something from him, not least about the dispute on one of the quotes.   Remember how I asked him about how he knew so much and he replied “I am professor of biblical archaeology at the University of Jerusalem’!   He was not a Christian but he said something particularly wise after that – “I would not expect to find lots of writings about Jesus in the 1st Century.  Why?  Because he was a Palestinian peasant who was executed on a cross.”  His point was valid.  It is the rulers and the victors who generally write history.   Why would they include Jesus in that?   Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  The trouble is that our fundamentalist atheists so often fail to understand context and as a result it is almost as if they are demanding newsreels, dvd’s, newspaper articles and e-mails from the 1st century to prove Christ.   By any accepted historical standards there is little doubt that Jesus existed.

If the denial of the historicity of Jesus Christ borders on the fantastical, the belief that Erik Von Danekan espoused of Jesus being an alien, has well crossed the border of rationality and evidence, and I will not insult your intelligence of it, any more than I would spend time trying to explain to you why Jesus was not a boiled egg. 


Where do we get our sources about Jesus Christ? 

There are extra biblical sources.  Mara Bar Serapim (AD 75) , the Roman historian Tacitus  (AD 115) and the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 90) all mention Jesus Christ.   Let me give you the two most famous quotes from the latter two.  They are a bit lengthy but they are extraordinary.  Firstly Josephus –“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Greeks.  He was the Messiah.  And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.  And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day”. This was written around AD 95.  There are obvious disputed parts within it, but the basic message is the same.    Tacitus writing in AD115 “The founder of this sect, Christus, was given the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate; suppressed for the moment, the detestable superstition broke out again, not only in Judea where the evil originated, but also in the city of Rome to which everything horrible and shameful flows and where it grows”.  

And then there is the Bible, in particular the four Gospels.  I love what Erasmus, the 16th Century scholar and Reformer wrote – “The Bible will give Christ to you, in an intimacy so close that he would be less visible to you if he stood before your eyes[5].  This is an extraordinary claim, but in my experience I can testify to its truth.  It means that there is a whole lot more to the bible than just being history, but it is also history.  So let’s examine what that means.

Some of your friends have told you that you cannot accept the gospel as historical documents.  Why not?  They were written as historical documents (take for example the prologue to Luke’s gospel which talks about investigating and sources).  You could argue that they are bad or inaccurate history but you cannot automatically dismiss them as historical documents, just because the church uses them.   In order to prove that they were inaccurate, false or just mythology you have to get through a number of hoops first.  You could for example identify events, places or people that they describe which we now know from history did not exist.   You could date the Gospels, which purport to be eye-witness or based on eye-witness accounts, as being centuries after the events the authors are supposed to have been witnesses of.   Many have tried.   And you could say that there were many other ‘gospels’ and that the church in or around the 4th Century just pick and mixed the ones that suited them.  So let’s look at all three of these. 

Firstly let’s take one example of how people have tried to prove the Gospels wrong – the question of Nazareth.   All four Gospels point out that Jesus’s hometown was a small place called Nazareth.  For many years ‘scholars’ and sceptics argued that this was a fiction because the Jewish historian Josephus did not mention Nazareth in his writings.  And then lo and behold in the 1950s an ancient village on the traditional site was discovered.  That particular argument has been blown to pieces. As indeed have many similar attempts to disprove the Bible.

Secondly the question of dating.  Hitchins argues that Jesus’s “illiterate living disciples left us no record”[6].  This set me as to wondering how illiterate disciples could write.  Hitchens of course pronounces that they didn’t –  But how does he know that Jesus’s disciples were illiterate?  Matthew a tax collector would certainly not have been, neither would Luke the doctor.  Mark and John could clearly read and write.  The fact is that we have no substantive reason to doubt that the gospels were written by those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus.  As John puts it “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1).

Thirdly the question of the other gospels.  This particular myth has been perpetuated by the truly dreadful Da Vinci Code.  When we set up a debate on the film and the book we scoured high and low throughout Britain to find any academic who would be prepared to defend the claims made by Dan Brown that the Church just selected the gospels in the 4th Century and rejected a whole lot of equally valid ‘gospels’.  No-one was prepared to.  It is a fanciful myth and is only taken seriously by those who think that The Sun or The National Inquirer are reliable sources of news.   I have spent the past year reading all these so called ‘gospels’ – at least those which have been translated into English.  If you are serious about this question then all I would suggest is that you read them and compare them with the four gospels we have in the bible.  You will soon see the difference.  Chalk and cheese would not be adequate to describe how vastly different they are.

The Virgin Birth

But let’s go on to look at some of the actual history.   Probably the most important thing about the birth of Christ, is what is known as the Virgin Birth. Larry King was once asked who he would like to interview if he had his pick from all history – his answer?   Jesus Christ.   ‘What is the one question you would like to ask him? “  “  I would ask him if he was indeed virgin-born, because the answer to that would define history for me”. 

Hitchens of course has no doubt.  And you seemed to have been impressed by this.  But in reality Hitchens pronoucements are largely bluster.  “Matthew and Luke cannot concur on the virgin birth”[7] ;. His comments on Isaiah 7:14 are particularly interesting –  “The word translated as ‘virgin, namely almah, means only a young woman’.[8] I don’t think you were at the eventful Belfast University meeting I spoke at a few years ago,  but I did tell you about it.  Apart from the almost riot between the Free Presbyterian creationists and the militant ‘you are all going to atheist hell’ secularists, the most interesting part of the meeting was when a young man dressed in his black Goth outfit complete with chains and nose studs, shouted out from the back, “there are hundreds of Greek, Egyptian and Roman myths about babies being born on the 25th of December, why should we believe yours?”.  I broke the cardinal rule of polite debating by mocking him, “You, sir, are a prime example of the dangers of Wikipedia” – before going on to point out that the fallacies within his statement.   At the end of the evening he was standing at the back of a long queue, looking really angry.  I took my time signing books but he was very patient and waited, and waited.  When it was his turn I shook his hand and apologised for putting him down.  But he just laughed – “no”. he replied,”I thought you were going to give me some of that Christian XXXX, and I was going to walk out.  But you called me on it.  You were right I hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.  Cheers”.  And off he went.

Sadly Hitchens argues at that level.  I am sorry to say that but it is not unreasonable to treat as bluster the statements of a man who can declare that Augustine, the writer of at least two of the greatest books in human history, was “an ignoramus”[9].   Unlike Hitchens, E J Young and Robert Dick Wilson did serious research on the meaning of the nine occurences of ‘almah’ in the Old Testament.   Both concluded that the word is never employed to describe a married woman and that the Septuagint (cited by Matthew’s gospel) was right to translate it in Greek as ‘parthenos’ (virgin). 

Hitchens though is in good/bad company.  There are many more ‘sophisticated’ clergymen who are stuck in a 19th Century paradigm of ‘miracles don’t happen’ and so do their best to dismiss it as untrue or unimportant.  Tony Jordan, a scriptwriter for the BBC series Eastenders did an excellent miniseries on the Nativity.  He describes his experience in researching this – “I sat with these men of the cloth, these were organised religion.  They were all explaining to me about the Nativity and about how it never happened.  And they were saying, ‘well of course, Mespotamia….mumble, mumble – there was always the legend of the virgin birth’  And I’m thinking, ‘What?  Hang on a minute! You’re on the wrong side, that doesn’t work.’  So I despair of them”  (Tony Jordan – interview in Christianity Magazine March 2012) .  Indeed.   The ‘evangelical’ liberal, Rob Bell, likened the virgin birth to one brick in a wall of theology.  “What do you lose if you lose that one brick?” To which the best reply was that of Mark Driscoll – “nothing, except Jesus”.   The virgin birth of Christ is one of the key doctrines of Christianity and without it you do not have Christ.  It’s a bit like the man who goes into the local fish ‘n’ chip shop and announces ‘I’ll have a fish supper, without the fish’!  Christianity without the virgin birth of Christ is Christianity without Christ. 

I have to confess that I have never understood why the virgin birth was seen as such a stumbling block.  If human beings can manufacture a situation whereby a woman can become pregnant without the necessity of sexual intercourse, why should we consider it impossible for an Almighty God to do so?  He does not need IVF or a turkey baster!  The trouble is that people start off with the pre-supposition that such a God does not exist and therefore a non-existent being cannot perform such a miracle.  This is the ultimate in circular and irrational thinking.  To claim that a virgin birth cannot happen because the Being who could make such a thing happen does not exist, really says nothing, other than about the prejudices of the person making the claim. Likewise I am NOT stating that merely claiming it did happen makes it true.  However I AM stating that by definition it is not self-evidently impossible that an Almighty God could do this one small miracle!

It all does make sense.  So much so that there is an increasing trend amongst those who once thought sceptical atheism was the only way to fly, to turn or return to the fold.   You are too young to remember this but AN Wilson was one of the most famous atheists in the United Kingdom.  In 1992 he wrote a famous book entitled Jesus: A Life in which he argued the conformist position of the time that the Gospels were just legends.  17 years later one Saturday afternoon, I was doing my usual, lying in the bath, drinking a coffee and reading The Spectator (in my view the magazine with the best writing of English in the world), when I had one of those ‘Eureka’ moments.  I almost shouted for joy to read an article by the aforementioned Mr Wilson, renouncing his atheism and his return to Christianity.   

Tim Keller tells the story of the novelist Anne Rice who had lost her childhood faith but when she began to read the work of sceptical scholars it had the opposite effect than that which they would have supposed.  “The whole case for the non-divine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horrified if he knew it – that whole picture which had floated in the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years.  That case was not made.” [10]

I leave you with that thought.  Please feel free to get back to me.  I am sorry that I have skimmed over these deep topics in such a quick fashion but if you want to investigate this further then can I suggest the following books to help.  Richard Bauckam – Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents, and John Dickson’s The Christ Files – How historian knows what they know about Jesus

 Yours etc


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