Jesus in Space and Time

I recently finished reading through the Bible again. This time I used a Bible reading plan on my iPad which is designed to help you read through the Bible in 12 months, but I worked my way through it slowly and took over two years. After coming to the end, I fluffed around for a few days, trying to decide whether to just start again or do something different. In the end I decided to start reading through a harmony of the Gospels – a combination of all four gospels with each passage listed in chronological order. That was over a week ago and I am still stuck on the birth narratives. I find that there is much to chew over in these early chapters of the Gospels. In particular, the incarnation of Christ and the events that accompanied it point to profound mysteries. As I pondered the birth narratives again, they prompted all kinds of questions and considerations. How could an eternal, omni-present God limit himself to become a temporal being, bound by physical location and constrained within time? And what implications does this have for our understanding of all that Jesus did throughout his ministry?

So, instead of keeping these thoughts to myself, I have decided to share them with you. Over the coming weeks and months, I propose to share a series of posts on the theme, “Jesus in Space and Time”. I will examine key moments in the Gospels and explore the implications of the incarnation – implications that, in my experience, are rarely given consideration in the average Sunday sermon or mid-week Bible study. I hope you find these reflections interesting and helpful.

To begin with, below is my first post in the series. It is not really an integral part of the series, but is more of a foreword – an apologetic for the historicity of Jesus and the Gospels – written more for sceptics than believers. You might find that it is helpful to forward on to non-believers. The post after this will start our series properly.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Before we can even start to talk about the life of Jesus Christ, there is an elephant in the room that must be dealt with. It really has no place being in the room but, unfortunately, it is there, nonetheless. For some people this elephant looms large and derails any sensible discussion of Jesus’ life. The elephant to which I refer is the completely misguided view that Jesus did not exist.

Sadly, this viewpoint has prevailed within some branches of the sceptic community and has even infiltrated the perceptions of some people within the general public. Baldly stated, this is the view that Jesus is a mythological figure, concocted by first century fanatics in order to substantiate their new religion. A sub-variant of this view is that there may once have been a man called Jesus of Nazareth and he may even have said a few interesting things on a couple of occasions, but the story of his life was subsequently embellished to a ridiculous extent by his superstitious followers. Either way, it is claimed that the Jesus whom we read about in the Bible simply did not exist as a real historical person.

If this is your viewpoint, please read on!  Alternatively, if you already believe the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, this first instalment will help to strengthen your faith by briefly highlighting the overwhelming historical evidence for Jesus’ existence.

But let me remove myself from the equation, at least to begin with. I am naturally biased because I already believe in Jesus as the incarnate, risen, glorified Son of God. Of course I am going to claim that Jesus was a real person! So I will step aside for a few moments and simply introduce you to some unbiased historians.

Dr Bart Ehrman is a world-renowned historian who has published widely and is recognised as one of the foremost authorities on the history of the New Testament period. He is also a self-confessed agnostic – bordering on outright atheist. Several years ago I heard him interviewed on Atheist Radio, an internet radio station hosted by someone who calls himself ‘the Infidel Guy’. During the interview, the Infidel Guy asked him, “Do you believe that Jesus actually existed?” The interviewer was clearly expecting Dr Ehrman to answer in the negative. In fact, it was because of Dr Ehrman’s acknowledged agnosticism / atheism that he had been invited onto the program. But instead, Dr Ehrman replied,

“Yes. There is no serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus. There are a lot of people who want to write sensational books claiming that Jesus didn’t exist, but I don’t know any serious scholar who doubts the existence of Jesus.”[1]

The Infidel Guy was shocked, and asked a follow up question; “But there are historians who disagree with you, aren’t there?” Dr Ehrman replied,

“None that I’ve ever heard of. Not serious historians. I know thousands of scholars of the ancient world and I don’t know any one of these scholars who disagrees.”[2]

The full transcript and recording of this interview is readily available online.

What is significant about Dr Ehrman’s statement is the strong assertion that there is no doubt within the unbiased academic community that Jesus Christ existed as a real person in the first century. We find similar assertions from other atheistic or agnostic historians. For example, Dr Neil Carter, another highly acclaimed historian who is a self-confessed atheist, felt compelled to correct a misguided discussion on an atheist discussion forum where people were claiming that Jesus never existed:

“I can’t believe I’m feeling the need to do this, but today I’d like to write a brief defence of the historicity of Jesus. When people in the sceptic community argue that Jesus never existed, they are dismissing a large body of work for which they have insufficient appreciation, most often due to the fact that they themselves have never formally studied the subject.”[3]

What is this “large body of work” that Dr Carter refers to? Quite simply, it is the substantial and rigorous analysis over many years of the various historical sources for the life of Jesus. It is not my intention here to replicate or even attempt to adequately summarise this extensive evidence, except to point out that people who claim that Jesus was a mythical figure who was only written about in the Bible are badly mistaken.

Dr Gary Habermas, another highly regarded and widely published historian, lists 39 ancient sources outside the Bible which verify many of the details of Jesus’ life. Some of these sources merely mention Jesus in passing, noting that he was a brief prominent figure in first century Israel. Others mention specific details of his life which corroborate the biblical accounts, such as the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman senator, Tacitus. A few even refer to his miracles and resurrection from the dead.

For example, there are several references to Jesus in the Jewish Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism that was being written during the period when Jesus was alive. The Jewish scribes were literally writing it as Jesus was travelling around Judea and Galilee, teaching the crowds and performing miracles. The Talmud records him as working miracles and accuses him of being a sorcerer. This is significant. Bear in mind that the Talmud was written by the Jewish scribes and Pharisees, the very authorities who eventually condemned Jesus to death, yet even they could not deny his miracles. Instead, they explained his miraculous deeds by claiming that Jesus performed them by the power of the devil; a claim which ultimately led them to condemn him to death. Thus, in the final reference to Jesus in the Talmud, we read:

“On the eve of the Passover Yeshua [the Jewish name for Jesus] was hanged. Before the execution took place, a herald cried, “He is going forth to be executed because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”[4]

The ‘hanging’ that is referred to here was a common first century description of crucifixion because those who were crucified literally hung from the nails in their feet and hands.

My point is that the claim by some sceptics that Jesus was not a real person represents a misinformed opinion that is ignorant of the overwhelming reliable historical evidence for his life and ministry. This evidence includes corroboration by hostile or disinterested witnesses – a form of evidence that is considered to be of greatest worth in both the historical and judicial world.

All of this is simply to say that the claim by sceptics that Jesus never existed is a nonsense that is completely without evidential merit. The elephant in the room of our discussion about Jesus turns out to be a vaporous mist without any substance.

Of course, it is one thing to admit that Jesus was a real person; it is quite another to acknowledge that he was the Son of God, which the Bible claims him to be and which Jesus claims of himself.  I am not, in these posts, attempting to provide a detailed apologetic for this claim. That is the topic for an entire book on its own. In fact, I have written along these lines in two of my previous books, 7 Reasons to Believe and Finding God When He Seems to be Hiding. I will not be replicating that work here.

The focus of these posts is theological and philosophical rather than apologetic and argumentative. My purpose is to explore the contextual and temporal implications of the incarnate life of Christ. These posts are addressed to those who already believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they attempt to explore the mind-boggling but rarely discussed implications of his incarnational visit to or planet. I want to dig down into the mystery of God becoming a human and dwelling among us in our limited form. I want to pull apart some of the Bible stories that we are so familiar with and look behind them and underneath them to explore the astounding nature of those events. I want to ask questions that you may not have considered and make observations that may surprise you.

Because I think the story of Jesus, when it is understood in its full historical and temporal setting, is the most astonishing story ever told.

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9CC7qNZkOE

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9CC7qNZkOE

[3] Dr Neil Carter, inpatheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2014

[4] Babylonian Talmud, BT, Sanhedrin 43a, quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeshu#Yeshu_the_sorcerer

 

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