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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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The New Testament & Old Testament in 10 Minutes

These two videos has been making their rounds across the Christian blogosphere. In them you’ll see two trustworthy and articulate thinkers presenting the essence of each Testament. The essence. See, for yourself, if the Bible is an amazingly unified whole:

The Old Testament in 10 Minutes

The New Testament in 10 Minutes

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.

Only One Life: a poem by C.T. Studd

CC Image courtesy of Olbibigo on Wikipedia

CC Image courtesy of Olbibigo on Wikipedia

I have these rare moments when the world appears as it really is: transient. Meaning-full. Wonderful. Important. But it won’t last forever. It’s not the final stop on this journey. For as long as those moments last, I see my work and wife and marriage and everything as they really are: things to be cared for, worked hard for, grateful for. But they’re not ultimate.

Even my weaknesses. They won’t have the last say.

But those moments are usually just that. Moments. And I’m so thankful for them. I’ve found a poem that seems to capture the moment rightly. I don’t know much about the author, C.T. Studd. But it seems like he really knew about what matters. He really knew Jesus. Here’s his poem:

Only One Life
By C.T. Studd
 
Two little lines I heard one day,
Traveling along life’s busy way;
Bringing conviction to my heart,
And from my mind would not depart;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 
Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 
Only one life, the still small voice,
Gently pleads for a better choice
Bidding me selfish aims to leave,
And to God’s holy will to cleave;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 
Only one life, a few brief years,
Each with its burdens, hopes, and fears;
Each with its clays I must fulfill,
living for self or in His will;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 
When this bright world would tempt me sore,
When Satan would a victory score;
When self would seek to have its way,
Then help me Lord with joy to say;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 
Give me Father, a purpose deep,
In joy or sorrow Thy word to keep;
Faithful and true what e’er the strife,
Pleasing Thee in my daily life;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 
Oh let my love with fervor burn,
And from the world now let me turn;
Living for Thee, and Thee alone,
Bringing Thee pleasure on Thy throne;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 
Only one life, yes only one,
Now let me say,”Thy will be done”;
And when at last I’ll hear the call,
I know I’ll say “twas worth it all”;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Why Being A Christian Is Hard

Our experiences today do not reflect God’s inattention or unfaithfulness, but his jealous love. He is exposing our wandering hearts and foolish minds and the way we trust our passions more than the principles of his Word. He is calling us to forsake our own glory for his, and teaching us that the idols we pursue will never satisfy us. He is making us wise to temptation and aware of a lurking enemy. He is teaching us to live for treasure that moth and rust can’t destroy and that thieves can’t steal. He is teaching us to live open, approachable, and humble lives.

We forget that God’s primary goal is not changing our situations and relationships so that we can be happy, but changing us through our situations so that we will be holy.

Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Handspg 241.

The Interpretive Toolbox: Follow the Trail

CC Image courtesy of Ed Coyle Photography on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Ed Coyle Photography on Flickr

My wife and I aren’t exactly avid hikers, but we like to walk easy trails. One trail, in the mountains near us, has an easy one mile loop that saunters down and around several scenic spots. Just after the trail head it cuts up through an apple orchard, runs past a small lake, and then skirts down the gentle mountain slopes that mark the edge of the property. Then a fork. Turn left and you’re led through tall reeds that brush up against either side of a suspended wooden platform. Turn right and you’re plunged into a small dell.

I stand at that fork and consider my options. What would it be like if I went down the diving right hand trail? I would come up the other side out of breath! What would it be like if I took the gentle left hand turn? I’d reach the same end, but much more composed, to be sure.

Sometimes the best way to understand a passage in the Bible is to do something similar. When we reach an interpretive fork – a place where we’re presented with seemingly similar options – we just need to stop and consider the outcomes of going down each path. What would the passage mean if we followed this train of thought? What if we went a totally different route?

Luke 22

A really interesting place to do this is Luke 22:66-71. In this little passage, Jesus is being presented before the Jewish council for questioning. It’s the last of these meetings, and the elders tell Jesus, “If you are the Christ, tell us.”

Follow the trail with me.

What would likely happen if Jesus went ahead and told them that he was the Messiah?

  • They most likely wouldn’t believe. Context tells us they’re already set on getting Jesus crucified.
  • They would have a confession from Jesus himself.
  • They would be able to tell Pilate that Jesus thought of himself (that Jesus told them) he was the “Messiah” or the King of the Jews.

Following the trail here helps us see why Jesus answers the way that he does. The Jewish leadership are not looking for evidence to weigh and consider – they’re looking for a claim to political authority that they can tell Pilate about. In this light, Jesus’ answer to them makes a lot of sense. He says, “If I tell you, you will not believe.”

In verse 69, Jesus claims that he’ll be able to permanently dwell in God’s presence – which, for a first century Jew, profanes the uniqueness of God and is worthy of the death penalty. So we see that if Jesus was going to be indicted for something, he would have it be a claim of ontological equality – not political authority. He would be known as God’s Son, not Caesar’s challenger.

If you follow the trail, you understand the passage better. What would have been the outcome if Jesus went this way? What if he went another way? When you get to a fork, stay there for a while. Consider your options. And then walk the interpretive walk.

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?