Who Is Jesus of Nazareth?
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Who Is Jesus of Nazareth?

Craig L. Blomberg, D. A. Carson

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eBook - ePub

Who Is Jesus of Nazareth?

Craig L. Blomberg, D. A. Carson

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What you can know about Jesus.Jesus is the most influential person in history. But not everyone agrees on who he was. Was he a fraud, a failed savior, or the Messiah? What can you know for sure about him?In Who is Jesus of Nazareth?, Craig L. Blomberg shows what you can know about Jesus and how you can know it. There is a wealth of information about Jesus from ancient sources, whether Christian or non--Christian, oral traditions or written manuscripts. Blomberg guides you through these sources, so you can investigate them for yourself. Explore the evidence about Jesus and why he matters today.
The Questions for Restless Minds series applies God's word to today's issues. Each short book faces tough questions honestly and clearly, so you can think wisely, act with conviction, and become more like Christ.

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Lexham Press
Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person to walk this earth in human history. Today more than 2.5 billion people worldwide claim to be his followers, more than the number of adherents to any other religion or worldview.1 Christianity is responsible for a disproportionately large number of the humanitarian advances in the history of civilization—in education, medicine, law, the fine arts, human rights, and even the natural sciences (based on the belief that God designed the universe in an orderly fashion and left clues for people to learn about it).2 But just who was this individual, and how can we glean reliable information about him? One work on popular images of Jesus in America alone identifies eight quite different portraits: “enlightened sage,” “sweet savior,” “manly redeemer,” “superstar,” “Mormon elder brother,” “black Moses,” “rabbi,” and “Oriental Christ.”3 Because these depictions contradict each other at various points, they cannot all be equally accurate. Historians must return to the ancient evidence for Jesus and assess its merits. This evidence falls into three main categories: non-Christian, historic Christian, and syncretistic (a hybrid of Christian and non-Christian perspectives). An inordinate number of websites and blogs make the wholly unjustified claim that Jesus never existed. Biblical scholars and historians who have investigated this issue in detail are virtually unanimous today in rejecting this view, regardless of their theological or ideological perspectives. A dozen or more references to Jesus appear in non-Christian Jewish, Greek, and Roman sources in the earliest centuries of the Common Era (i.e., approximately from the birth of Jesus onward, as Christianity and Judaism began to overlap chronologically). These references appear in such diverse sources as Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian), several different portions of the Talmud (an encyclopedic collection of rabbinic traditions finally, codified in the fourth through sixth centuries), the Greek writers Lucian of Samosata and Mara bar Serapion, and Roman historians Thallus, Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius. Tacitus, for example, in the early second century, writes about Nero’s persecution of Christians and then explains, “The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”4 The Talmud repeatedly acknowledges that Jesus worked miracles but refers to him as one who “practiced magic and led Israel astray.”5 Josephus, in the late first century, calls Jesus “a wise man,” “a worker of amazing deeds,” “a teacher,” and “one accused by the leading men among us [who] condemned him to the cross.”6
It is, of course, historically prejudicial to exclude automatically all Christian evidence, as if no one who became a follower of Jesus could ever report accurately about his life and teachings, or to assume that all non-Christian evidence is necessarily more “objective.” But even using only such non-Christian sources, there is ample evidence to confirm the main contours of the early Christian claims: Jesus was a Jew who lived in Israel during the first third of the first century; was conceived out of wedlock; intersected with the life and ministry of John the Baptist; attracted great crowds, especially because of his wondrous deeds; had a group of particularly close followers called disciples (five of whom are named); ran afoul of the Jewish religious authorities because of his controversial teachings, sometimes deemed heretical or blasphemous; was crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate’s governorship in Judea (26–36 CE); and yet was believed by many of his followers to have been the Messiah, the anticipated liberator of Israel. This belief did not disappear, despite Jesus’ death, because a number of his supporters claimed to have seen him resurrected from the dead. His followers, therefore, continued consistently to grow in numbers, gathering together regularly for worship and instruction and even singing hymns to him as if he were a god (or God).7
Contemporary reactions to this composite picture sometimes complain that this seems like a rather sparse amount of information. On the other hand, until the last few centuries, historical and biographical research in general almost exclusively focused on the exploits of kings and queens (or their cultural equivalents), military conquests and defeats, people in official institutional positions of power in a given society; and the wealthy more generally, not least because it was primarily these people who could read or afford to own written documents. Jesus qualified for attention under none of these headings. Moreover, no non-Christians in the first several centuries of the Common Era had any reason to imagine that his influence would grow and spread the way it did in the millennium and half ahead. So it is arguable that it is actually rather impressive that as much has been preserved outside of Christian circles as has been. And of course, most ancient testimony to any person or event has been lost over the centuries, so many other references to Jesus might have existed that we simply no longer know about. The sources that do remain are almost all Greek and Roman documents that weren’t writing about events in Israel in the first place.
By far the most important historical information about Jesus of Nazareth appears in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Yet, chronologically, these are not the earliest Christian documents still in existence. Even most conservative scholars acknowledge that the Gospels were not written before the 60s, about thirty years after Jesus was crucified (in either 30 or 33 CE). The majority of the undisputed letters of Paul, however, were all written, at the latest, by the 50s. These include Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and 1 Thessalonians. Thus, when they report on the deeds and sayings of Jesus, they cannot simply be following one or more of the written Gospels for their information. Rather, they must reflect the oral tradition that was preserving those details before the written accounts appeared. The letter of James contains about three dozen probable allusions to the teaching of Jesus, especially from his Sermon on the Mount, and it may well date to as early as the mid-40s.8 But because this point is more disputed, I will limit our focus here to the epistles of Paul just mentioned before turning to the Gospels themselves.
Readers of Paul’s letters sometimes wonder why he does not refer back to the teachings and deeds of Jesus even more than he does. Several factors no doubt account for this silence. First, he is writing to Christian churches who have already heard considerable details about their Lord. Second, he is dealing primarily with specific issues reflecting the current situations of those congregations. Third, the genre of epistle was not designed primarily to retell the story of the life of Christ. The letters of John, written most likely by the same author as the Gospel of John, barely refer back to specific sayings and events from Jesus’ life at all, even though the author had himself written about them in detail. Finally, Christians quickly recognized that the most important features of Jesus’ life were his crucifixion and resurrection, and Paul has a lot to say about these in his letters.9
Still, it is easy to underestimate the number of quotations and, particularly, allusions to the Jesus tradition in the epistles of Paul, precisely because ancient writers felt free to represent the gist of another person’s teaching in their own words. Indeed, in some circles, good rhetoric demanded it. Paul clearly knows the basic outline of Jesus’ life.10
What Paul appears to know about Jesus is that he was born as a human (Rom 9:5) to a woman and under the law, that is, as a Jew (Gal 4:4), that he was descended from David’s line (Rom 1:3; 15:12) though he was not like Adam (Rom 5:15), that he had brothers, including one named James (1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19), that he had a meal on the night he was betrayed (1 Cor 1:23–25), that he was crucified and died on a cross (Phil 2:8; 1 Cor 1:23; 8:11; 15:3; Rom 4:25; 5:6, 8; 1 Thess 2:15; 4:14, etc.), was buried (1 Cor 15:4), and was raised three days later (1 Cor 15:4; Rom 4:25; 8:34; 1 Thess 4:14, etc.), and that afterwards he was seen by Peter, the disciples and others (1 Cor 15:5–7).11
More significantly, he knows very specific teachings of Jesus on a wide range of topics. First Corinthians 11:23–25 quotes Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup at the Last Supper in considerable detail and in language very close to what Luke later wrote in Luke 22:19–20. Earlier in the same letter, Paul appeals to Jesus’ principle that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel (1 Cor 9:14; compare Luke 10:7; Matt 10:10). He knows that Jesus opposed divorce (1 Cor 7:10; compare Mark 10:2–12) but supported the paying of taxes (Rom 13:7; compare Mark 12:17). He taught about not repaying evil for evil, but rather loving one’s enemies and praying for one’s persecutors (Rom 12:14, 17–19; compare Luke 6:27–28, 36; Matt 5:38), and about not judging but tolerating one another on morally neutral matters (Rom 14:13; compare Matt 7:1; Luke 6:37). Paul understands that Jesus declared all foods clean (Rom 14:14; compare Mark 7:18–19), that he warned of God’s imminent judgment on the leadership of the nation of Israel (1 Thess 2:15–16; compare Matt 23:32–36), and that he predicted numerous specific events in association with his return at the end of the age (1 Thess 4:15–17; 5:2–6; see Christ’s discourse on the Mount of Olives in Matt 24–25). These are simply the clearest references in Paul’s letters to Jesus’ teaching. A much longer list of probable allusions can be compiled.12 As a result, it just will not do to argue that Paul knew little or nothing about the historical Jesus or that he so distorted his picture of Jesus as to become, for all intents and purposes, the true founder of Christianity.
But we may press the point further. In Paul’s most detailed discussion of Jesus’ resurrection, he writes,
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance [or “at the first”]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that is, Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters. (1 Cor 15:1, 3–6)
The language of “receiving” and “passing on” here is technical terminology denoting carefully memorized oral tradition. As central Christian doctrine, Saul of Tarsus (whom we know better as Paul) would have been taught these basic gospel facts not long after his conversion, which took place roughly three years after Jesus’ death. Already in that very short period of time, the belief that Jesus was bodily raised from death was entrenched as the heart of the fundamental teaching new converts had to learn. It cannot be chalked up to the slow, evolutionary development of myth or legend decades after the original facts of Jesus’ life had been left behind.13
Despite corroborating evidence outside the New Testament Gospels, the bulk of the evidence for Jesus comes from the three Synoptic Gospels (so-called because they are more alike than different and can be set next to each other in parallel columns for easy comparisons among them) and the Gospel of John (which has more differences than similarities to any one of the Synoptics).
The various “quests of the historical Jesus” that have proven so influential in the last two centuries of New Testament scholarship have focused primarily on the three Synoptic Gospels.14 The upshot of all this research is that a significant cross section of current scholarship believes that at least the broad contours and most central items common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke are likely to be historically reliable. Those central themes include such features as the following: Jesus was a Jewish teacher who was raised as a carpenter, but who began a public ministry when he was around the age of thirty. He submitted himself to John’s baptism; announced both the present and future dimensions of God’s kingdom (or reign) on earth; gave love-based, ethical injunctions to his listeners; taught a considerable amount in parables; challenged conventional interpretations of the Jewish law on numerous fronts but never broke (or taught others to break) the written law; and wrought amazing signs and wonders to demonstrate the arrival of the kingdom. He implicitly and explicitly claimed to be the Messiah or liberator of the Jewish people, but only if they became his followers. And he counterculturally believed that he had to suffer and die for the sins of the world, be raised from the dead, and ascend to his heavenly throne next to Yahweh, only to return to earth at some unspecified point in the future to usher in judgment day. He called all people to repent of their sins and form the nucleus of the new, true, freed people of God, led by his twelve apostles.15 A number of factors converge to make the assumption probable that a portrait relatively close to this one can be viewed as historically accurate.
Authorship and Date
Many conservative scholars present plausible arguments for accepting the early church’s unanimous attributions of the Synoptic Gospels. Mark is a relatively minor character on the pages of the New Testament, probably best known for deserting Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey for a reason we are never told (Acts 13:13; 15:37–38). He would not have been a likely person after which to name a Gospel if he did not actually write it, with many other more prominent and respected first-generation Christians available for such an ascription. The same is true of Luke, who was Paul’s beloved doctor, but who appears by name only three times in the New Testament, in each case tucked away in the greetings at the end of an epistle (Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Phlm 24). Matthew, on the other hand, was one of the twelve apostles—Jesus’ closest followers during his lifetime—but, as a converted tax collector (Matt 9:9–13), his background could easily have made him the least respected of the Twelve!
Many liberal New Testament scholars nevertheless doubt that Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote the Gospels bearing their names. But they almost all agree that they were written well within the first century by orthodox Christians in the orbit of apostolic Christianity. Typically suggested dates place Mark in the late 60s or early 70s and Matthew and Luke in the 80s, although occasionally Luke is pushed into the early second century. Conservatives who accept the church fathers’ testimony concerning the composition of these Gospels date all three to the early or mid-60s. On either of these main set of dates, however, we are speaking of documents compiled about fifty years or less after the events they narrate. In our age of instant information access, this can seem like a long time. But in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was surprisingly short.
The oldest existing complete biographies of Alexander the Great, for example, are those of Plutarch and Arrian, hailing from the late first and early second centuries CE Alexander died, however, in 323 BCE! Yet classical historians regularly believe they can derive extensive, reliable information from these works to reconstruct in some detail the exploits of Alexander, not least because of the earlier sources these biographers acknowledge utilizing (just like Luke does). This remains true despite various problems in harmonizing certain differences between these two sources and despite certain ideological grids thr...

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