Friday, February 1, 2008

The Historical Jesus

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In the academic world of biblical history and archeology, scholars of the "minimalist" camp are gaining increasing prominence. Essentially, minimalists give the biblical record little credence; they minimize the importance of the Bible to the historical record, placing more trust in evidence from other sources. They tend, then, to discredit the Bible's claims until an archeologist digs up confirmatory proof or until other manuscript evidence comes to light to corroborate Scripture. It seems that, according to modern critical scholarship, the venerable Bible is the ugly stepchild of history, an embarrassment to today's "scientific" study of the past.

Of course, minimizing the Bible's claims cannot help but bring its main Character, Jesus Christ, into question. Since 1985, the Jesus Seminar, a group of about 200 scholars and authors, has done just that. Its aim is to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus by using modern critical methods, weeding out fact from fiction in the gospel narratives. Out of hand, the members reject all "apocalyptic eschatology," or prophecy concerning the end times. In addition, they say that He "healed" only psychosomatic illness, and so discard His miraculous abilities. They do admit that He was crucified—as a public nuisance—by the Romans, but they reject His resurrection as the visionary experiences of Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. In the end, stripped of all the "fictions" His early followers spread about Him, Jesus is revealed as merely an itinerant Jewish peasant who mingled with the socially disadvantaged and uttered a few pithy sayings.

Yet, if they are to be believed, how did such a common fellow make such a huge impact on world history—to the point that two billion people presently profess to be His followers?

There is a disconnect somewhere, and it is not in the people of faith.

Granted, no serious historian can claim that Jesus Christ is not a historical figure. There is simply too much evidence from the early Christian era to show that He really did exist. As biblical theologian and historian F.F. Bruce has written, "The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar" (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th ed., 1972, p. 119). Ancient documents from respected writers like Tacitus, Flavius Josephus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger—and others—refer unreservedly to Jesus of Nazareth as an actual person.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing about the great fire of Rome in AD 64 during the reign of Nero (AD 54-68), tells of how the emperor blamed the Christians living in the city for starting the conflagration. Perhaps referring to extant Imperial records, he notes in his Annals, XV.44:

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . . .

Josephus, a Jewish general and historian who lived into the early second century, penned a controversial paragraph about Jesus (yet attested as early as about AD 324 in the writings of Eusebius, a Catholic church historian):

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 wonderful miracles, 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 Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and then thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct to this day. (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.3)

Suetonius, an annalist of the Imperial dynasty and a court official in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), writes in his Life of Claudius, XXV.4: "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [an alternate spelling of Christus], he expelled them from Rome." This decree of Claudius can perhaps be dated to AD 49. In another work, Life of Nero, XVI.2, Suetonius observes, "Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition."

Finally, Plinius Secundus, more commonly known as Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, corresponded with the emperor Trajan in AD 112 (Epistles, X.96) about how to treat Christians who refused to pay homage to the emperor as a god. He admits, "Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them." He mentions Christianity, Christians, and the name of Christ ten times in the short letter, even remarking that Christians "addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity."

The Emperor's reply is also preserved, in which he commends Pliny for his actions:

You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you. . . . If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian. . . .

There are many other, later, secular attestations of Jesus Christ as a historical figure from antiquity, but just these four reveal Christ and Christianity as being known by Roman officials at the highest levels as early as the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54). Certainly, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate knew Jesus Christ and reported His trial and execution in his official records, which unfortunately have not survived.

If nothing else, these early mentions provide unbiased support for many of the biblical claims about Jesus, including His truthful teachings, His miracles, His crucifixion, His resurrection, and even His divinity! The truth is that the critical scholars do not want to believe these things, even from the pens of historians that they usually trust, because they know that believing them would bind them to following Christ's teaching—and they will do anything to avoid that!