Jesus & The Gospels

Did Jesus Exist? Part 1: What the Greeks and Romans Said

How do we know that Jesus actually existed?

In the four Gospels we have about 300 individual and unique literary units all generated by this figure: Jesus Christ. There’s no doubt that the early church thought he existed. Their lives were radically changed because of who he was, what he did, and the things said. But how do we know that our gospels aren’t simply Christian delusion, or the result of an ancient conspiracy that went just a little better than planned? Are the Gospels the only place that we hear about Jesus?

The answer is a firm “no.” We have several written documents besides the Gospels that mention Jesus. While it’s true that the Gospels are the main place we hear about Jesus, it’s not true that they’re the only place. Other ancient witnesses testify to the existence of Jesus. And even though that doesn’t settle the question, “was he who he said he was?” it does answer the question, “did he exist to say these things?” And that’s what I want to focus on in these posts. What evidence, outside the four Gospels, do we have for Jesus’ existence?

Greco-Roman Sources

1. Tacitus

Tacitus (AD 56-117) was a Roman historian who described the persecution that Christians faced during Nero’s reign. Tacitus refers to Jesus through his latin name, “Christus.” Speaking of the Christians, he says

“They got their name from Christus who was sentenced to death during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”

Annals, 15.44.

Tactitus goes on to describe the way that the Christian movement was “checked,” or stopped, because of the crucifixion of Jesus. Unfortunately for the Romans, the movement “broke out” once again both in Judea and in Rome.

… a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome

Annals, 15.44.  It’s clear that Tacitus thought of Christians as a nuisance. His words mock Christianity, “mischievous superstition,” “evil.” Tactitus’ historiographical skill and anti-Christian bent leads many scholars to believe that Annals 15.44 is the most important and trustworthy reference to Christians and Christ we have outside the Gospels themselves. There is no way that a Christian would refer to their own movement in this way.

2. Suetonius

In the early second century (100’s), another Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote,

Because the Jews at Rom caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from the city

Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, §25. There’s a lot of debate about this section in Suetonius’ history. One of the main issues is whether Suetonius is actually referring to the Christ, Jesus. The “misspelling,” is at the root of the confusion. Is “Chrestus” a reference to Christ? Or is this another figure in Rome?

I’m inclined to say that Suetonius is referring to Christ for two main reasons:

  1. The Jews and Christians in Rome (and everywhere) did not get along. The book of Acts testifies to this. 1st century Jews and Jewish Christians had numerous irreconcilable religious differences that would have (and did) lead to many disputes and conflict. This would’ve happened in Rome only if there were someone for them to fight with: those instigated by Christ, the Christians.
  2. The majority (though not all) of writing I’ve read on this quote seems to evaluate it this way: “a garbled reference to Christ.” Once you’ve considered Tactitus’ reference to Christ and Pliny’s reference to the problems Christians are making him face, that seems to be a fair evaluation. Christians probably did exist to create these issues for government.

3. Pliny the Younger

Around the same time, in the early second century, a governor of Bithynia (in Asia) named Pliny the Younger wrote to the emperor Trajan wanting to know how to deal with Christians who wouldn’t worship Trajan. Pliny mentions “that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, pg 5-7, cited Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.

Darrel Bock, in his class on the “Life of Christ,” says that the evidence of opponents can sometimes be worth more than we first think. It’s especially true in this case. In Pliny the Younger, we have an enemy of Christianity with something very important to say: the Christian trouble-makers worshiped Christ as though he were a God.

A Pending Conclusion

“In summary, Greco Roman writers of the late first and early second centuries are aware that Jesus was a Judean who was crucifed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and that his followers now venerated him as a god.”

There are certain questions that historical research can (usually) answer: Did a person exist? What did they say? How were they received? These are all legitimate questions that can be addressed by going to the sources. It does seem Jesus existed. We do have a record of what he said. And we know exactly how he was received: at once with enthusiasm, and finally with blows. But there are questions that historical inquiry cannot answer: Is it true? Of how much value was this person? Were they justified in doing what they did? Once these kinds of questions are run through a text, they us up off the ground and into the air of evaluation and judgement.

But because of these 3 Greco Roman sources we have this firm ground beneath our feet: A Judean man. Governed by Pontius Pilate. Crucified. Worshiped. [1] That’s what the Greek and Roman sources tell us.

1. Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.

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Was Jesus’ Self-Centered? John Stott Answers

stottJohn Stott helping us to understand what Jesus thought about himself.

This self-centeredness of the teaching of Jesus immediately sets him apart from the other great religious teachers of the world. They tend to be self-effacing. He is self-advancing. They point people away from themselves, saying, “That is the truth, so far as I understand it; follow that.” Jesus says “I am the truth; follow me.” No other religious founder who dared to say such a thing would be taken seriously. The personal pronoun forces itself repeatedly on our attention as we read his words. For example:

[John 6:35 ESV] 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

[John 8:12 ESV] 12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

[John 11:25-26 ESV] 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

[Matthew 11:28-29 ESV] 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Basic Christianity, John Stott, pg 34.

The Unforgivable Sin: Is It Really Unforgivable?

(This is the second installment of two posts on the “unforgivable sin.” The first post answers the question, “what is it?” This second post answers the question, “Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?”)

This post is going to be less interesting to most people, and that’s okay with me. It’s going to answer a question that you could phrase several ways:

  • Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?
  • If I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin, can I ask for God’s forgiveness?
  • Is there any way to “take back” blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

A few people are at least a little bit curious about what the unforgivable sin is. Fewer still are convinced that they’ve done it, and now need to deal with the consequences. That smaller group of people is, I assume, the kind of people whose consciences are sensitive to their state before God. And for that reason there’s no way I can make light of this question. For some, even if it is a select few, the question is real: “How can I repent of the unforgivable sin if I think I’ve committed it?”

So, Can You Be Forgiven?

Here’s my answer: As long as you want to be forgiven, you can be assured that you haven’t even committed the “unforgivable sin.”

I come to that conclusion based on these things:

  1. The context (before and after material) of the passage
  2. A definition of the “unforgivable sin” based on that context
  3. A basic theological framework

1. The Context

It’s really unfair, you might even say irresponsible, to try and lift the passage up and out of it’s context. So remember the conclusions drawn from the the previous post: The situation is the Jewish Religious Leadership’s repeated, repeated, repeated, dismissal and denunciation of Jesus’ work. They saw what Jesus did on a regular basis and persisted, to the very end, to denounce his work as coming from Satan and not God. The four Gospels give us no reason to believe that they ever turned away from their unbelief and toward Christ in faith. We’re dealing with people who are Jesus’ enemies. They are not crawling at his feet for mercy. They are attacking him every chance they get.

2. A Definition Based on the Context

If you want a definition that’s both nuanced and sensitive to the context, then you can’t do much better than Craig Blomberg’s from Jesus and the Gospels (pg 280), which I referred to last time.

“In context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit means the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him.”

3. A Basic Theological Framework

“Theology” is a word that means “the study of God.” So a theological framework is a way of viewing the Bible that’s based on the rest of the Bible. If you see one verse that seems to say something different than the rest, you try to interpret it in light of the other truths you know about God.

So what does the whole Bible have to say about repentance? As long as a person wants to repent, they can. Sometimes (and this is getting into some deeper waters) God will, in his sovereign justice, let a person experience the results of their sin. As a result, they won’t want to. But God also, in his sovereign mercy, can show a person how they have sinned against him, and keep them faithful to him through repentance. Often, like David in Psalm 51, this will lead to an honest plea for forgiveness. As long as this person wants to (that is, God has sustained them in his mercy), they can ask for forgiveness and receive it freely.

Once again, Craig Blomberg’s comments are really helpful, “There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture that an individual who genuinely desired to repent and turn back to God is denied the opportunity. Indeed, the very consternation that causes some believers to wonder if they have committed the unforgivable sin by definition demonstrates that they have not.” Jesus and the Gospels, pg 281. John, the writer of the 4th Gospel, says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 ESV)

A Conclusion

The right question is not so much, “Can I be forgiven of the unforgivable sin?” so much as “Did I ever really actually commit it?” And unless, 1) you’re dead, and really did persist in it, or 2) God has sovereignly allowed you to experience the consequences of you sin, (unless one of those is true) you can still ask for forgiveness.

If either one of those things is true, you won’t want forgiveness.

Blomberg’s point (in the above quote), and mine (in these 2 short posts), is that as long as there is godly sorrow and grief over “the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him…” then there will be forgiveness. As long as you want forgiveness for misunderstanding Jesus’ message, mission, and identity, you can have it.

The Unforgiveable Sin: What is it?

Mark recalls Jesus speaking about the “unpardonable sin” this way:

28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” [Mark 3:28-29 ESV]

Is it possible for a person to commit this sin? Is there really an action terrible enough to merit this kind of condemnation? How do I know if I’ve committed this sin?

Questions swirl around this teaching of Jesus. And it’s not likely that Christians will stop wondering anytime soon. For one thing, it shows up in Matthew, and Mark, and Luke. You can’t simply pick you favorite Gospel (unless, I suppose, yours is John), and avoid it. It’s going to come up if you read your Bible. And secondly, because eternity is a long time. I know that “eternal condemnation” is a laughable (and even pitiable) idea for people who don’t follow Jesus — but to those who have seen and believed, this teaching of Jesus is sobering. Forever is forever.

So, what is it?

Context Is Key

If you don’t read this passage with the before-and-after material in mind, you’re going to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Here’s what happens before:

    [14] Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. [15] But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” [16] while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.
(Luke 11:14-16 ESV)

Here’s what just happened: A group of people watch Jesus heal a man who was possessed by a demon. This group of people respond in two different ways. One group “marvels” because they’re sure that Jesus did this with God’s power and authority. The other group scoffs. They’re sure that Jesus did this with the demon’s power and authority. We see this in the next verse:

[15] But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,”
(Luke 11:15 ESV)

One group says: Jesus heals with God’s power. The other says: Jesus heals with Beelzebul’s (Satan) power. Jesus’ ability to heal is understood in two different ways. One says it’s from God. The other says it’s from Satan.

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – In Context

Jesus answers this evaluation of his ministry by saying that 1) it’s illogical, and 2) it’s inconsistent. It’s illogical because no ruling authority attacks it’s own members. How and why would Satan cast out his own demons? And it’s inconsistent because there were many other Jewish rabbis who had done similar acts of exorcism and never experienced this kind of criticism.

It’s in this context that our “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit,” or unforgivable sin, shows up. And if you’ve followed along so far, I think you’ll begin to see why this context of healing->evaluation->differing conclusions, is so helpful.

Jesus goes on to say:

28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

If you want to understand what the unpardonable sin is, then you have to understand this verse. This verse is what we might call “the interpretive key.” Put this verse in the lock, turn it, and things begin to open up. If Jesus really is doing things with God’s power and authority, then the observer (us, and the original audience) must be very careful about how we evaluate what we see in Jesus. If God really is in fact empowering Jesus to do these incredible things, then to say, “he’s doing this by Satan’s power” is to misjudge him, and call God’s acts through him, “evil.”

Craig Blomberg sums it all up brilliantly in his book Jesus and the Gospels (pg 280) by saying,

“In context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit means the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him.”

When you take a few minutes to read the before-and-after material, this unforgivable sin becomes much clearer.

But there are still one issue I want to address: What if, at one point, you decide in a fury to yell out, “I deny the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus”? Is there any way to repent, or have you crossed a “point of no return”?

(This is the first installment of two posts on the “unforgivable sin.” The first post answers the question, “what is it?” The second post will answer the question, “Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?”)

The criterion of embarrassment

How can a Christian answer the question, “Why, or how, do you believe the Bible is true? How do know it wasn’t just made up?” One of the most compelling answers I have to a question like that is the criterion of embarrassment.

The Criterion of Embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment says that the writers of the Bible include “embarrassing” stories because they’re true stories. They want truthfulness more than they want to seal off the loose ends.

But a 5-minute google search of “criterion of embarrassment” will lead you to a few critiques. Not everyone is convinced that this criterion, or way of looking at the Bible, proves very much. These critiques point out the ways in which this criterion often gets misused and stretched. And it’s true. It has weaknesses and limitations. In order to explain what exactly the criterion of embarrassment is (for those who’ve never heard about it), and to address these critiques before moving on, I’ve given three qualification or limitations below.

Limitations

A Greek manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel

  1. The criterion of embarrassment doesn’t argue that every embarrassing story is true. If this were the case, we could go to one of the “apocryphal” gospels (gospel of Judas, gospel of Thomas), find a really strange story about Jesus, and argue for it’s truthfulness this same way. But it wouldn’t work. Here’s why:

  2. The criterion of embarrassment is like a table top that supports conclusions only if it is supported by sturdy legs: the witness of the church. This is crucial. A story’s truthfulness can only be established if the eyewitness of the events themselves, the early church, already witnessed and fought for a story’s place in the scriptures. Once you combine #1 with #2, you get this principle:
  3. Stories aren’t necessarily true because they’re embarrassing, but embarrassing stories must have been true if they were deliberately included in the scriptures. Truthfulness and witness is at the foundation of this criterion. Not necessarily embarrassment. So you can’t go to an embarrassing story and say it’s true simply because it’s embarrassing. I could make up a lot of stories about Jesus and say they should be included because they’re embarrassing. But you can (and should) go to an “embarrassing” story, one that reflects badly on the disciples for example, and ask of it, “why is this here? Why wasn’t it taken out? Why was it defended?” That’s the strength of this criterion.

All that is pretty theoretical. So here’s a real example.

Peter’s Embarrassment

Peter was one of the first followers of Jesus and later became a major leader in the early church. When he followed Jesus and heard his teaching, he frequently misunderstood. Luke tells us about a time when Jesus asked his 12 closest followers:

And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”

We know, from the end of the story, who Jesus claims to be: the Christ, the Savior of the world. His conclusion about himself is clear enough. But he turns the question on his followers:

 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” [Luke 9:18-20 ESV]

Peter seems to have the answer right. He seems to know who Jesus is. But later we find out that he actually doesn’t. When Jesus tells Peter that he (Jesus) will eventually be crucified by the Romans, this happens:

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him [Jesus], saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” [Mark 8:32-33 ESV]

Peter thinks that Jesus is out of his mind for all this talk about suffering, being rejected, and being killed. And he’s got it completely wrong. He’s totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and message. And his mistake is now recorded in the Bible for us to remember, almost 2000 years later.

Why This Matters

This is an embarrassing story for the early church. They have to admit that one of their leaders didn’t really understand who Jesus was. There’s a lot of things you could make mistakes about and still be alright; but Jesus’ identity isn’t really one of those.

Is this really the guy that you want to head up your made-up/make-believe church? (In Acts, the “history book” of the early church, Peter is one of the major leaders) If you were making this all up, wouldn’t you smooth out this minor (…major) mistake of his?

You would. If you were making it all up. And that’s the point. If the church didn’t have such an overwhelming desire to be truthful and honest, they would’ve simply removed this story. But here it is.

When you consider the limitations above, and apply that important qualifier of “the witness of the church,” you can form a statement like, “I know that this story isn’t true just because it’s embarrassing, but why wouldn’t the church remove this embarrassing story if they could’ve? Why was it defended and included in the Gospels?”

I think the only conclusion to that question would be to say that it really is a true story. The criterion of embarrassment is a good reason to believe that the what we read in the Bible really, actually, happened.

Jesus and the Gospels

About 2 weeks ago I finished a series of lectures delivered by Darrel Bock on “The Life of Christ.” It was 15 hours, 6 minutes, 3 seconds long, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. Bock is a skilled expositor of God’s Word, and he walked through a rough harmony of the gospels to show what Jesus’ life and ministry were all about. Now that it’s had some time to sink in, I thought that I’d share 1 observation about format, and 2 about content:

1. Redeem your commute

If you’re driving about 30 minutes a day (like I do) or more, use that time to sharpen up an area that’s grown dull — use it to learn.

Redeem your commute/walk/free time!

2. Jesus understood what was expected of him, and wisely refused

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Jesus was constantly engaging and reshaping people’s expectations of who the “Messiah” was supposed to be. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to see this happening. I’ll pick just one place: Mark 8.

[27] And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” [28] And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” [29] And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” [30] And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
(Mark 8:27-30 ESV)

Jesus is self-conscious in the best way possible — he knows people are thinking about him with certain categories. “Lines are being drawn in the sand,” as Bock says in his commentary on Luke. Jesus wants to see what kinds of lines his disciples are drawing.

Peter’s line (literally and figuratively) is, of course, the most famous, “You are the Christ.”

At first glance, it seems like Peter understands who Jesus is. He’s certainly got the right title for Jesus. But he’s filled that title with content (expectations) that don’t match the container. So when Jesus says that the Messiah has to suffer, Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter’s “Messiah,” (and most 1st century Jew’s Messiah) came to conquer — not suffer.

And here we have it: Different understandings of what Messiah came to do. Peter’s is simplistic. Jesus’ is nuanced and filled with apparent paradoxes. He knew Peter wanted a Messiah with power to destroy the Roman enemies and free Israel from their captivity.

Jan_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Sermon_on_the_Mount_-_Google_Art_Project

A beautiful (but completely anachronistic) painting of the sermon on the mount.

Despite resistance from every party, Jesus insisted that this Kingdom he came to bring belonged to the meek, weak, weeping, sorrowful and persecuted (cf. the beatitudes, Matthew 5:2-11). It would come in power, that was sure. But not the kind of power that most Jews longed for.

Jesus knew that every person spiritual freedom more than they needed political freedom.

Jesus knew the box he was supposed to fit into, and wisely refused.

3. Sometimes the disciples/crowds ask really dumb questions

We’re told all through school, “there is no such thing as a dumb question.” But the way Jesus responds to certain questions makes me think that his position is more nuanced. There are several places in the gospels where Jesus responds in a certain way because the question is, well, kind of dumb. If he were to answer it directly, it would take the discussion in the wrong direction. And so he doesn’t really answer it. He sees the train-wreck question coming, and stops the conversation from derailing by steering it in a new direction.

Perhaps the easiest place to see this happening is when Jesus interacts with a Pharisee in Luke 10:25-37. A Pharisee comes to Jesus to ask a few questions. After some pleasantries (verses 25-28), he asks the question that’s really been on his mind. He wants to know how little alms-giving and charity he can get away with. His question is “Who is my neighbor?” He’s asking, “who is the person I’m obligated to help? I want to help them so that I’m justified… but I don’t really want to do anything more than that. Who is my neighbor?”

Dumb question.

Jesus responds with the famous parable of the good Samaritan. His point in giving this parable? Be a neighbor. Just be a neighbor. Help people who need help. Be a neighbor. “You’re asking the wrong question, so I’m not going to answer it. Here’s the answer to the question you should have asked.”

Conclusion

Follow this link to the course page and take a look at the lectures summaries. They provide a brief 20-30 word description of each lecture. Download them for free and start learning!

If you already know you don’t have the time/resources to do that, I hope my observations have been helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments.

When you read the gospels what stands out to you?