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Who Is Jesus?

Author
Category Articles
Date June 7, 2011

Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for someone else? (Luke 7:19)

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6)

There are at least three questions that often surface in today’s contemporary world concerning the person of Jesus:

I. First, was Jesus an impostor who did not fulfil Messianic prophecies? In 2006 Jews for Jesus, an organization of Jews who have become followers of Jesus, put on a major campaign in New York City, seeking to blanket the city with their claims that Jesus of Nazareth fulfils the Hebrew Scripture’ prophetic words about Messiah. Jewish leaders in New York City rebuffed this campaign, seeking to prove that Jesus is not Messiah. With over two hundred and forty thousand Jews in America now claiming Jesus to be Messiah, and especially for those of us living in West Hartford with our large Jewish population, this is a particularly appropriate question.

You may not embrace the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of the Scriptures,1 however there really is no other way to discuss this issue without referring to both the Hebrew Scriptures and what Christians call the New Testament Scriptures. The Hebrew Scriptures are the only ancient writings that specifically predict future events, what we call prophecies. By this I mean words that predict certain events, hundreds of years beforehand, in great detail that can be verified. Either they happened or they did not. One of the most remarkable examples of this is found in the specific prophesies of Daniel, who, preaching and writing around 600 BC, predicted the fall of the Babylonian empire, the rise and fall of the Medo-Persian empire, the rise and fall of the Greek empire, and the rise and fall of the Roman empire, things that happened hundreds of years later.

The question then is this, “is Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures?” In Genesis 49:10 we are told that the sceptre will not depart from Judah; and Isaiah 11:1 says that a root will come up from the stump of Jesse (the father of King David), and from his root a Branch will bear fruit. The term ‘Branch’ is commonly used to refer to Messiah. This promises a lasting kingship through David for all the ages. Yahweh (the Hebrew word for Lord) declares in Jeremiah 23:5 that he will raise up from David’s line a ‘righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely.’ In the prophet Isaiah we find a number of references to the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, and some Jewish traditions recognize this Suffering Servant as Messiah. Isaiah 42 says that he will bring forth justice to the nations. Isaiah 49 says that he will re-gather the tribes of Israel to God. Further, God promises to make his Suffering Servant a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 49:6). He promises that he will be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). He promises that he will be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14). Then the most well known passage on the Suffering Servant of Yahweh (Isa. 52:13-53:12) says that he will suffer terribly but will be highly exalted, bearing the sins of his people, and that he will die and then live forever. In 2 Chronicles 7 God says that when Israel’s sins reach a certain level he will destroy the temple. The prophet Daniel says (Dan. 9) that God would have mercy and rebuild the temple. Both of these things, as we know from history, happened. Daniel goes on to say that the Son of Man would bring everlasting atonement. Haggai, preaching in the fifth century BC, said that the second temple, though lacking the powerful presence of Yahweh, would nonetheless be greater than the first temple. It would be filled with the glory of Yahweh. Malachi, the last of the Hebrew prophets, wrote that Yahweh would suddenly come to his temple and the glory of Yahweh would appear, bringing purification to some but judgment to others. The atonement coming through the second temple, prophesied by Haggai and Malachi had to occur before the second temple was destroyed. And when was it destroyed? The answer is 70 AD through Titus of the Roman Empire. And when did Jesus die? He died around 30 AD. Many rabbinic traditions put the coming of Messiah around two thousand years ago, at the time of Jesus’ life. And finally, the New Testament Gospel writer and apostle, Matthew, at the start of his Gospel, says, ‘The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ Matthew obviously believed Jesus was the Messiah, that Jesus was the fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise that David would always have a descendant on the throne of Israel. In referring to Jesus as the ‘Son of Abraham’ he is stressing the connection between the father of the Jews and the Messiah. Perhaps it is also helpful to remember that all the apostles were Jews, and that all the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost and believed on Jesus through the preaching of the Apostle Peter.

The bottom line is this either Messiah came two thousand years ago or the Hebrew Prophets missed it entirely, and if they missed it entirely, then why should anyone trust anything else they said? There is no other person who meets the qualifications to be Messiah except Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, the Hebrew name for Jesus is Yeshua, from Joshua, which means ‘I will certainly save.’ So, according to the Hebrew Scriptures Messiah has to be Jesus of Nazareth. Now, if we wish to discard the Hebrew Scriptures, then that’s another issue. However if one takes them seriously there is no other option. Only Jesus of Nazareth accomplished all that was prophesied prior to 70 AD. When you put all these Hebrew prophecies together, there is no other option. It has to be Jesus.

II. Another objection to Christianity that is prominent today comes from some who say that Christianity’s beliefs about Jesus were borrowed from pagan religions. They say that the idea of a virgin birth is nothing new, that the presence of a God-Man is also taught by many religions. Many have recently said that the notion of Jesus being raised from the dead is found in writings about numerous mythical gods of antiquity. In fact Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code has his characters say that nearly every aspect of Christianity from the virgin birth, to Communion, to the resurrection were all borrowed from gods and goddesses of pagan, mystical religions. In The Jesus Mysteries authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy say that each mystery religion has its own version of a dying and resurrecting God-Man. In Egypt he was known as Osiris, in Greece he was Dyonysus, in Asia Minor he was Attis, in Syria he was Adonis, in Persia he was Mithras, in Alexandria he was Serapis. In Jerusalem he was Jesus. The idea here is that Christianity is not authentic.

Admittedly at first glance there are several aspects of Christianity and pagan mystical religions that bear resemblance. Writers have said that Mithras, a pre-Christian god of Persia, was born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, was a travelling teacher, had twelve followers, promised people immortality, sacrificed himself, was buried in a tomb, and was raised from the dead three days later. He supposedly instituted a Eucharistic meal and was called the Logos.

What shall we say to these things? First, even if there are similarities between Christianity and pagan religions, these in no way negate the strong historical evidence to prove the authenticity of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a fact of history. He appeared to more than five hundred people at one time. He appeared to his disciples at least four times after his resurrection. His disciples, who died for their belief in Jesus and his resurrection, if knowingly preaching a lie, would never have allowed themselves to die as martyrs. They would have recanted. The Gospels all were written within thirty years of Christ’s death, and the apostles all preached the resurrection of Jesus from the very beginning. Eyewitnesses never disputed their message. Religious and Roman authorities tried to silence them. They killed them, but they never could disprove their story.

More importantly, the claim that Christianity borrowed from ancient mystical pagan religions cannot be substantiated. It is true that these religions pre-dated Christianity but it is not true that they taught virgin births, resurrections, or Eucharistic meals. Swedish Scholar and member of the Royal Academy of Letters T.N.D. Mettinger in his book The Riddle of Resurrection says that the consensus among modern scholars – nearly universal – is that there were no dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity.2 Such references all came after the first century AD. In other words, it was the pagan religions that borrowed from Christianity, adding to their stories the virgin birth, etc. Mettinger looked closely at the supposedly three to five dying and rising gods that predated Jesus of Nazareth and he found that there is nothing there. The closest reference was to gods who died in the fall of the year and came back to life in the spring, a means of explaining the vegetation cycles. This is vastly different from Christianity because it is not tied to vegetation cycles and it only happened once. Furthermore the very nature of the Christian message was something obviously spoken to be believed, whereas the mystical religions have their gods dying and rising each year as a mere explanation of the cycles of nature. Their explanation of the vegetation cycles being gods dying and rising reminds us of our tradition of explaining the sun shining during rain as the devil beating his wife. No one takes that as a legitimate explanation for the weather.

One last thing on this point – some have suggested that the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr, who lived from 100 to 160 A.D. wrote around 150 A.D. of parallels between the dying and rising gods and Jesus. If true, then this would suggest that maybe Christianity did borrow from these pagan religions after all. How do we explain Martyr’s comments? It is important to understand why Martyr was writing. Christians were being severely persecuted by the Romans, and Martyr’s argument to move them to stop it was this, ‘Why are you killing Christians who believe in Jesus who was killed and rose from the dead? You are not killing or persecuting those who have similar beliefs about their gods.’ When one looks at the fuller context of what Martyr was writing it becomes obvious that he was stretching to make his point. For example he speaks of the sons of Jupiter, saying that Aesculapius was struck by lightning and went to heaven, that Bacchus, Hercules, and others rode to heaven on the horse Pegasus. He describes Ariadne as one who has been declared to be among the stars. And he mentions that when Augustus was cremated someone in the crowd said that he saw Augustus’ spirit ascending from the flames. No respected scholar would consider these statements on par with the straightforward way the Gospels portray Jesus as dying and rising from the dead. Furthermore, there is no hard evidence that any of these mystical gods were resurrected as the Gospels claim that Jesus was resurrected.

The bottom line is that Brown, Freke, Gandy, et al. are at the very least terribly misinformed or at the very worst deceitful. The mystical, pagan religions borrowed from Christianity, adding to their stories tales of virgin births, eucharistic meals, and resurrections. And those few references to gods dying and rising were ways of explaining the annual vegetation cycle. These were not true resurrections from real death to life.

III. A third question for our consideration is this – are people free to believe what they wish about Jesus? On the one hand I can say, ‘Yes. Absolutely! People can believe anything they wish about anything.’ A follow-up statement, however, is – but can this be a valid and truthful statement? People are averse to organized religion in our day, and many, therefore, are devising their own religion. Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball coach Phil Jackson calls himself a ‘Zen Christian’, and I read where a woman told a Presbyterian minister that she is a ‘Presbyterian Buddhist.’ Most today see nothing out of the ordinary about these titles, things which historically speaking are mutually exclusive. That is, Christianity and Zen teach very different things, as does a Presbyterian minister like myself and a Buddhist monk.

We now champion tolerance and diversity. Why? From where did this come? Rene Descartes, a seventeenth century mathematician and faithful Roman Catholic, in a desire to find the very essence or foundation of truth, said he must begin with what he knows is true. He knew that he existed because he was able to think. So he began with his famous ‘cogito ergo sum”I think, therefore I am.’ Unwittingly Descartes moved Europe away from confidence in the Scriptures to natural reason. This led to confidence in science as the measure of all truth, and this led to Logical Positivism, a philosophy that taught nothing is real unless it can be experienced by one of the five senses. This ushered in Modernism, which some say reigned supreme from the French Revolution in 1789 to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Modernism denied supernaturalism in general and the miracles of Christianity in particular. However, sometime in the 1960’s scholars were beginning to challenge the idea of truth with a capital T. They looked at the horrors of the Bolsheviks, Fascists, Nazis, and racists in South Africa and America and said that sweeping truth claims of any sort eventually end up oppressing people. This has found its way into every area of life, including religion. So, a militant Muslim intent on jihad and a conservative, Jerry Falwell-type Christian are said to be in the same boat scary people who claim they have a corner on Truth. Consequently we have come to the place in the West where we now champion diversity of every kind. We are uneasy about anyone who makes absolute truth claims. So we now have people who take aspects of Christianity like God’s love and mercy, the peace aims of the Dali Lama, and search for inner tranquility that Zen promises, and they make their own religion. They say, ‘Truth is relative. This is true for me, though it may not be true for you.’

We now call this new way of thinking Postmodernism. There are some positive things about Postmodernism. One of the more trivial benefits is the move back to the old school baseball uniforms the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, and Atlanta Braves wore in the 1960’s and earlier. Many of you will remember those hideous, modernistic ones they wore in the 1970’s (though not a Yankees fan I still applaud the fact they never went for those new school, modernistic uniforms). Another great benefit are the old school baseball parks like Camden Yards and the new stadiums in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. More importantly, however, is a new interest in social justice and community, something that tended to be lost when most were simply interested in making money in the 1980’s.

However a casualty of Postmodernism is an unwillingness to address the illogical foundation of their thought system. The Law of Non-Contradiction makes clear that mutually exclusive terms cannot both be true. For example, take this syllogism.

To acknowledge that David Ortiz is a member of the Boston Red Sox, and that no member of the Boston Red Sox is a member of the Yankees, but then to assert that David Ortiz, nonetheless, is a member of the Yankees is quite impossible. It is illogical.

Likewise, to call oneself a Zen Christian or Presbyterian Buddhist is illogical. Zen and Buddhism teach many things contrary to Christianity and Presbyterianism, and both Christianity and Presbyterian, likewise, teach many things contrary to Zen and Buddhism. It is completely illogical for a person to assert that both these mutually exclusive terms are true.

I understand the reluctance of people to embrace sweeping truth claims. After all, Mao, Hitler, and Stalin all claimed to speak truth; and embracing their truth claims led to millions of deaths in the twentieth century. The buzz-word today is tolerance. The definition of tolerance has changed in the last twenty years. Prior to that time, to be tolerant meant that even if you disagreed with someone’s lifestyle, religion, political ideology, etc. you at least treated that person with dignity and respect. Today, however, to be tolerant means that you must accept the other person’s lifestyle and views, even champion them, never saying anything that could be construed as disagreeable. The new definition of tolerance has led to religious and moral relativism.

Think about it when anyone says, ‘Truth is relative,’ is he not making a sweeping truth claim? Is he not stating truth with a capital T? The simple fact is that everyone, everyday makes truth claims. The relativist, by definition, believes that his relativism is true, not only for himself, but for all of us. He may say that he is a Zen Christian and while one may disagree with his religion, that’s okay, because one can worship god in his own way. But when one says, ‘Well, you are certainly free to be a Zen Christian but that point of view is logically impossible and cannot be true,’ then the one saying that he is a Zen Christian becomes upset with the one challenging his position. At this point the ‘Zen Christian’ ceases to be relativistic. He is being dogmatic. He is speaking truth with a capital T. So relativism breaks down very quickly. At the end of the day, we must agree that true relativism is impossible.

I have a friend who grew up Buddhist and has a Ph.D. in classical studies from a major American university. She had many friends in the academic community who applauded her Buddhism, saying that they champion ethnic and religious diversity. However when my friend became a fervent follower of Jesus, leaving her Buddhism behind, her ‘friends’ suddenly turned on her. They have rejected her and mocked her faith. So much for being tolerant of another’s views!

I freely admit that many truth claims are damaging. ‘Bad truth’ kills. No doubt about that! However, we cannot move away from the notion of ‘true truth’ with a capital T. And as Pilate asked Jesus before ordering him to be crucified, ‘What is truth?’

I suggest all the ‘Truth’ we need to know about life and death, how to live in this world, how to know God, to be right with God, to live with freedom and joy in this world, is found in the Bible. My appeal to unbelievers and sceptics at this point, playing on the words of John Lennon is to ‘give Jesus a chance.’ I admit that many professing Christians have been mean-spirited, unkind, racist, and worse. The Roman Catholic Church fought the Crusades and killed thousands of Muslims. The Puritans burned witches at the stake in Salem, Massachusetts. Evangelicals have said horrible things about homosexuals and political liberals. I am sorry these things have been done and said. They are wrong.

However, I challenge you to look at Jesus. I challenge you with an open mind to go ad fontes, to the fountain, to the sources, and see for yourself who he is. How do you do that? I suggest you begin by reading the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament Scriptures. Mark, a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, travelled about, interviewing the people who saw Jesus and who benefitted from his ministry. These were people who no doubt told their stories repeatedly. That’s how ‘Detective Mark’ gathered his information. He wrote only thirty years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Any of these stories that were false could easily have been refuted by other eyewitnesses if they were aberrant in any way. None refuted their testimony. Read Mark’s Gospel slowly and ask, ‘God, if you exist, if your Son is Jesus, then please reveal him to me? I really want to know the truth.’ I believe if you will do that, honestly and with an open mind, then you will find how wonderful he is, how beautiful he is, how marvellous he is to meet your every longing in this world and the next.

Notes

  1. See ‘Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?’ in the Articles section of the Trust’s website.
  2. I am indebted to Lee Strobel for much of this information, drawing from his book The Case for the Real Jesus.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

www.christcpc.org

Al Baker’s sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.

If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at al.baker@christcpc.org

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