The Quest for the Historical Jesus

Michael L Gowens

“Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” 1 John 4:3 

Does it really matter what a person thinks about Jesus? Yes, it does. In fact, whether or not Jesus is the Son of God is a truth that changes everything. 

Talk show host Larry King understands the significance of the issue. When Barbara Walters asked, “If you could interview anyone in history, who would it be?”, King spoke with unguarded honesty. “Jesus of Nazareth,” he replied. Her next question was, “If you could ask him one question, what would it be?” After a brief pause, he responded, “I think I would like to ask him, ‘Were you truly virgin born?’, because if he was, that would change everything.” 

It wasn’t long after his earthly history before skeptics began to reconfigure the facts about Jesus. By the end of the first century, a new Christology called Docetism—a view that denied the human nature of Jesus Christ on the basis of the belief that matter is evil—threatened the integrity of historical Christianity. 

It is interesting to note that the heresies that troubled the Christian church during the first four centuries were primarily “Christological” departures (i.e. ideas about the Person and Work of Jesus Christ that were inconsistent with God’s special revelation in Scripture). Docetism, a teaching promoted by Marcion and the Gnostics, was contemporaneous to John’s first epistle. The Docetists said that the body of Jesus was a “phantom” body merely giving the appearance of human nature. It is likely that John has this particular doctrinal deviation in mind when he writes, “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.”

Others attempted to separate the human from the divine nature of Jesus, asserting that the “Christ spirit” came on Jesus at his baptism, but left him at the cross. Most modern revisions of the Doctrine of Christ (2 Jno. 9) affirm his human nature but deny his divine nature, but as the influence of Eastern religions becomes more prominent in the West, the trend to once again define “Christ” in the mystical terms of a “Christ consciousness” or a “Christ spirit” is once again gaining momentum. This kind of language is, at its root, a duplication of the Docetist idea that “Jesus Christ is not come in the flesh.”

What Think Ye of Christ?

Several months ago, a local newspaper ran a syndicated article about the historicity of Jesus. The article led with the question, “Is Jesus the embodiment of God and the key to the world’s salvation—or was he merely one of many wise human teachers?”[i] The writer quotes Marcus Borg, a professor at Oregon State University, who defines the debate that rages within ‘Christian’ circles in alarming terms: 

What’s at stake is both the nature of the Bible and the future of Christianity. Two very different understandings of Christianity are emerging. One is associated with the more conservative wing of Christianity and stresses that Christianity is about believing: believing in the Bible…and believing that Jesus died for our sins [and] rose from the dead…But the newer understanding that’s emerging stresses what’s really important is entering into a relationship with God and following the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. It’s about realizing that our understanding of the Bible is still developing. And it may lead people beyond a conventional belief in Jesus.[ii]

The author proceeds to say: 

Liberal scholars, such as Borg, believe there are many factual errors in the gospel stories because they were written decades after Jesus’ death by writers who were convinced that Jesus was God’s son. Many details probably were revised to portray Jesus that way, these scholars argue. For example, Borg claims that it is unlikely that Jesus’ body actually rose from the dead. Other ancient literature shows that most people living around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death did not believe in bodily resurrection. The biblical accounts of Jesus’ body disappearing from a tomb on Easter morning probably were intended as metaphors to show that Jesus’ spirit continued to exist after his death, Borg said.[iii]

Further reference is made to New Jersey Episcopal Bishop John Spong’s new book Why Christianity Must Change or Die. He contends that it is unlikely that Jesus body was physically resurrected. Spong refers to Jesus as a spirit person: a human being with a deep sense of God guiding his life. Spong writes, 

This is a time when we need to offer people a chance to think about Jesus in new and different ways…Jesus differs from us as humans not in kind, but in the degree of the presence of God in his life. Jesus is essential to my Christian spirituality, but I can’t say Jesus is the only way that God reaches people.[iv]

The Jesus Seminar

One would naturally expect this kind of skepticism from the secular world, but, sadly, these attempts to redefine Jesus by deconstructing Biblical authority have come from within the professing ‘Christian’ community. Perhaps the most organized attempt to reinterpret orthodox Christianity has come from a group of seventy-four New Testament ‘scholars’ known as the Jesus Seminar.

The Jesus Seminar is the modern form, within liberal theological circles, of a two-hundred year old quest to redefine Christianity. With the advent of the scientific revolution, many religious leaders took great pangs to reconcile the Bible with new knowledge and modern science became the supreme authority.

Assaults on the integrity of the Bible were in vogue. Higher Criticism emerged within scholastic circles as a school of thought that presumed to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of Scriptures historical claims. Rudolph Bultmann, one of the leading scholars of Form Criticism in this century (he died in 1976 at age 92), utterly rejected the possibility of miracles. He stated, 

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.[v]

Operating from the anti-supernatural bias that science has proved that miracles cannot occur, Bultmann believed that we must treat science as our only source of knowledge about the external world. The purpose of the Bible, according to him, was to give people a new self-understanding. He claimed that we can know little about Jesus beyond the basic fact that he once lived.

Like Bultmann, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar reject the Gospel references to the supernatural out-of-hand. They claim that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels is a fictitious figure fabricated by overly zealous disciples—an embellishment of the real Jesus. Of course, to sustain this premise, they must argue that the Gospel narratives are not credible—that they are fraught with exaggerations and legends—and that is precisely the claim they make.

The Seminar states that “Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him.”[vi] To support the presumption, the Seminar introduces a fifth Gospel, and it dates this apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, an essentially Gnostic codex discovered just after World War II at Nag Hammadi in Egypt,[vii] prior to the canonical Gospels. But there is compelling data to verify that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were composed within thirty years of the crucifixion of Jesus and that the Gospel of Thomas could not have been written earlier than A.D. 150.[viii] Instead of the incredible scenario that the Gospel writers borrowed from Thomas, as the Seminar Fellows suggest, it is more likely that the Gospel of Thomas took material from the canonical Gospels and edited it to fit Gnostic teaching. 

The Jesus depicted in the Gospel of Thomas is a wise sage offering ambiguous insights about non-resistance and neighbor love, but making no claims to Deity and working no miracles. He is essentially a great man, but not God manifest in the flesh. Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, says, [Jesus was] a secular sage who satirized the pious and championed the poorJesus was perhaps the first stand-up Jewish comic. Starting a new religion would have been the farthest thing from his mind. It seems incredible, however, that the insipid Jesus of the Jesus Seminar would have engendered the strong opposition that eventually led to his crucifixion.

The bottom line is that the Jesus Seminar argues from the “stacked deck” of philosophical naturalism instead of demonstrating historical objectivity. But historicity must be determined by the reliability of the evidence, not by what a person thinks is possible or likely.[ix]

Christ of Faith or Jesus of History?

The Jesus Seminar insists that a distinction must be made between “the Christ of faith” and “the Jesus of History.” They contend that the historical Jesus was simply a peasant sage, not the second Person of the Trinity. Because these professors believe that science has discredited belief in the supernatural world of miracles like the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ, they argue that the facts make very little difference. What really matters is an experience with Christ, not the historical details. 

Their emphasis is mystical—focusing on the spiritual and metaphorical significance of Jesus’ life—instead of classical—deducing theological significance from historical fact. Marcus Borg, for example, explains the resurrection appearances of Jesus as metaphors that signify the continuing presence of Jesus in the lives of his followers.[x]

Such a blanket dismissal of historical facts in favor of the spiritual interpretation is frighteningly similar to ancient Gnosticism. The Gnostics (from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge) believed that matter is evil and only spirit is good. They denied the deity of Jesus Christ for they could not conceive of God assuming a physical body. To them, Jesus was simply one of many emanations from God, but not God manifest in the flesh.

Further, they defined salvation in terms of liberation from the physical realm through special spiritual experiences. The knowledge and insight given to them during these spiritual experiences made them, they believed, spiritually superior to those whose knowledge was limited to what could be gained from Scripture alone. Anything with form and structure that appealed to the mind, e. g. verbal revelation in Scripture, was deemed sub-spiritual. The heart and emotions took precedence over the intellect. Experience, not God’s word, became the litmus test of truth. 

In the Introduction to his History of the Church of God, Sylvester Hassell identifies Gnosticism (with Judaism) as one of the two formidable threats to Christianity in the early church.[xi] The letter to the Colossians and the epistle of First John are direct apologetic thrusts at this dangerous heresy. 

In his first epistle, John applies a doctrinal test to Christian profession: Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world (1 John 4:2-3). The test is simply this: Does a particular teacher say the same thing [i.e. confess] about Jesus Christ that God says about Jesus Christ? First Corinthians 12:3 teaches that the Spirit of God always glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Jno. 15:26; 16:13-14); therefore, no one whose teaching is inconsistent with the word of God is actuated by the Holy Spirit.

Simply put, John asserts that any teaching that confesses the reality of the Incarnation and the two natures of Christ subsisting in one person is from God. Any teaching that denies this basic and fundamental truth is the spirit of antichrist. 

What does a person say about Jesus? This doctrinal test is crucial to authentic Christianity. The identity of Jesus is the most basic principle of the Christian faith—the bedrock of the church (Mt. 16:13-18). Where the answer given to that question is a departure from the word of God, a person has no right to claim to be a Christian. 

What Do Men Say?

“Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” Public opinion in the first century concerning Jesus of Nazareth was varied.Some people said that he was John the Baptist; others, that he was Jeremiah, Elijah, or one of the prophets. There was little public consensus about his true identity. 

Some things never change. Even today, public opinion polls are unreliable barometers of truth. Two millennia later, misconceptions about the identity, the teaching, and the activity of Jesus still exist. Modern man is still skeptical about this most intriguing historical figure. He is willing to allow that Jesus was a sage, especially gifted with wisdom and kindnessone of historys great teachersor that he was a charismatic leader with ambitions to lead a revolution against Rome, or even a religious genius. But was he God? Such a claim sounds offensive to scientific minds. 

What Do You Say?

Indeed, public opinion has always been sketchy and inconclusive about the true identity of Jesus. The ultimate issue, however, is not “Whom do men say that I am” but “Whom say ye that I am? Peter knew that Jesus was indeed a wise, deeply spiritual, teacher who said things that had significant social and political implications, but he also knew that Jesus was more than that. He replied, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt. 16:16). 

Like Peter, true Christians are people who acknowledge both that the Jesus of History is the Christ of Faith and that the Christ of Faith is the Jesus of History. They identify the historical figure named Jesus as the Christ of God because he is the only key in all the universe that fits the infinitely complicated lock of Messianic prophecy.[xii] They are people who know that the Jesus who once lived still lives, and that His bodily resurrection from the dead is the ultimate proof that He was the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). They are people who believe that there is compelling evidence for the reliability of the Gospels and that the four evangelists present a harmonious and historically accurate account of Jesus. The Jesus depicted in these Divinely-inspired narratives still ministers to His people from His heavenly throne. They know that the Man of sorrows can still be touched with the feeling of our infirmities in His ascended glory (Is. 53:2; Heb. 4:15), that the Man that executed [Gods] counsels is today the one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus (Is. 46:11; 1 Tim. 2:5). The Jesus of history is our Man in heaven.. 

The identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the only begotten Son of God is the watershed issuethe line of demarcationthe Great Divide between Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Unitariansim, Secularism, and every other worldview. It is one of the great non-negotiables of our faith (1 Tim. 3:16a). It is an issue about which the church cannot afford to give any latitude. It is not open for debate. 

Charles Lamb was once involved in a discussion of the question, Who is the greatest literary genius of all time? Two names emergedWilliam Shakespeare and Jesus of Nazareth. Lamb put an end to the debate when he said, Ill tell you the difference between these two men. If Shakespeare walked into this room right now, we would all rise to greet him, but if Christ came in, we would all fall down and worship. 

Larry King was correct. If the account of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus is true, then it changes everything. It means that He was more than a man; consequently, His words are absolutely authoritative. It means that what He said about life and death, God and the devil, sin and salvation, and heaven and hell is true. It means that history has significance and that life has purpose. It does matter what a person thinks about Jesus. What will you do with Jesus? Will you dismiss him as an optical illusion, reinvent him in terms you can live with, or fall down before him and believingly confess with Thomas, My Lord and My God?

[i] Lexington Herald Leader, July 3,1999, Section C, pp. 7,10. 

[ii] Ibid. 

[iii] Ibid. 

[iv] Ibid. 

[v] Quoted in The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, Gary R. Habermas, p. 123. 

[vi] Habermas, p. 122. 

[vii] Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, Michael J. Wilkins & J. P. Moreland, p. 23. 

[viii] Ibid., pp. 23, 29. 

[ix] Ibid., p. 5. 

[x] Habermas, p. 136. 

[xi] History of the Church of God, C. B. & S. Hassell, p.7. 

[xii] Ibid., p. 180.