The Case for Jesus
The Quest for Jesus
This book is about one big question: Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be God?
The seeds of my interest in who Jesus really claimed to be were first planted back in the early 1990s, when I was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University. I still remember vividly the day I walked into one of my introductory level classes, very excited to begin learning about the Bible. Although I had grown up Catholic and had even spent a fairly good deal of time reading the Scriptures, I had never before had the opportunity to study the Bible in an in-depth way.
At the time, I was especially excited to begin studying the Gospels. For me, the Gospels were the most familiar part of the Bible, and my personal favorite. In particular, I was hoping that I would be able to learn more about Jesus. As a Christian, I had always believed that Jesus was the divine Son of God, fully God and fully man. I worshiped him and tried to the best of my ability (which was often quite lacking) to live according to his teachings. So when it came time in the classroom to turn to Jesus and the Gospels, I was all ears.
Needless to say, I was somewhat taken aback when the professor began by saying:
“Forget everything you thought you knew about who wrote the Gospels.”
What was that? At the time, I was vigorously trying to take notes, so I couldn’t quite digest what the professor had said.
“Although your English Bibles say ‘The Gospel according to “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John,” ’ these titles were actually added much later. In fact, we don’t really know who wrote the Gospels. Nowadays, modern scholars agree that the Gospels were originally anonymous.”
Got it. Titles added later. Gospels originally anonymous.
Wait a minute! I thought. We don’t know who wrote the Gospels? What about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Weren’t they disciples of Jesus? (As we will see in chapter 2, I was wrong to think Mark and Luke were disciples.)
At the time, these questions flashed through my mind in a matter of moments. Being a zealous undergraduate intent on getting straight As, I was more focused on writing down the professor’s words than on processing them. All the same, I do remember being struck by a thought. If what he was saying was true—which, of course, I never doubted, since I was an ignoramus and he was the professor—then how do we know what Jesus actually did and said? And, in fact, that is exactly what he proceeded to talk about: the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” in which modern scholars search for the truth about what Jesus really did and said, using contemporary tools of historical research.
Despite my initial surprise at the idea that we don’t know who wrote the Gospels, the whole notion of the quest for Jesus still fascinated me. After all, Christianity is a historical religion, which claims that the God who made the universe actually became a man—a real human being who lived in a particular time and in a particular place. As a result, the idea of searching for the historical truth about Jesus made sense to me. So, somewhat blindly, that’s what I set out to do.
The Telephone Game
On the one hand, as I began to devour a steady stream of books about Jesus, I felt as if my whole understanding of him and his world was being opened up in new and exciting ways. For one thing, I began taking courses in ancient Greek so that I could learn to read the New Testament in its original language. It was thrilling. I also began studying the Old Testament, which helped me get a better understanding of the history behind the Bible. The end result was that I added a Religious Studies major to my program in English Literature. I also decided to become a professor and spend my life teaching and writing about the Bible. Eventually, I was admitted to a master’s program in biblical studies at Vanderbilt University, which kicked off with a rigorous regimen of learning ancient Hebrew. I even had the privilege of studying under Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of New Testament. From Dr. Levine, I began to learn how important it was to interpret the words and deeds of Jesus in their first-century Jewish context. She helped me to see Jesus through ancient Jewish eyes. This was a great gift and, in many ways, a great time in my life.
On the other hand, at the very same time, something else began to happen. I also began to encounter ideas about Jesus and the Gospels that were difficult to reconcile with what I had grown up believing. For example, in addition to the theory that the Gospels were originally anonymous, I learned that many modern scholars believe that the Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, that they were not authored by disciples of Jesus, and that they were written too late in the first century AD to be based on reliable eyewitness testimony. One of the textbooks I learned from—written by the now famous atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman—even compares the way we got the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels to the children’s game of “Telephone”! These are the words I read all those years ago:
[N]early all of these storytellers had no independent knowledge of what really happened [to Jesus]. It takes little imagination to realize what happened to the stories. You are probably familiar with the old birthday party game “telephone.” A group of kids sits in a circle, the first tells a brief story to the one sitting next to her, who tells it to the next, and to the next, and so on, until it comes back full circle to the one who started it. Invariably, the story has changed so much in the process of retelling that everyone gets a good laugh. Imagine this same activity taking place, not in a solitary living room with ten kids on one afternoon, but over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across), with thousands of participants.
We’ll revisit the idea of the Telephone game later on in this book. As we will see, this so-called “analogy” is completely anachronistic and has no place in any serious historical study of Jesus and the Gospels. But I didn’t know that seventeen years ago. At the time, let’s just say that it didn’t exactly inspire confidence in me that the four Gospels were historically reliable. To make matters even more complicated, I also discovered that there were lots of other ancient gospels outside the New Testament that I had never heard about before. In fact, some scholars argued that these “lost gospels,” especially the Gospel of Thomas, should get equal treatment as historical sources in the quest for Jesus. After all, if the four Gospels weren’t based on eyewitness testimony, why should we trust them instead of the lost gospels? Finally, and most significant of all, I began to realize that many contemporary New Testament scholars do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth ever actually claimed to be God. Of all the ideas that I encountered, this last one shook me to my core.
Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or Legend?
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as if I had never before come across the idea of someone not believing in the divinity of Jesus. To the contrary, when I was an undergraduate, I had read very closely C. S. Lewis’s famous book Mere Christianity, in which he explains some of the reasons he converted from atheism to Christianity. In that book, Lewis gives a classic argument against the common idea that Jesus was just a great moral teacher or a prophet. In Lewis’s own words:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
When I first read these words, I found them to be compelling. After all, if Jesus went around claiming to be God, then he really did leave us with only three options:
1. Liar: Jesus knew he wasn’t God, but he said he was;
2. Lunatic: Jesus thought he was God, but he actually wasn’t;
3. Lord: Jesus was who he said he was—God come in the flesh.
At the time, this logical “trilemma” made sense to me, and I considered it, among other things, a good reason for continuing to believe that Jesus was divine.
However, as I continued to study the quest for Jesus, it slowly dawned on me that for many people, there was a fourth option: namely, that the stories about Jesus in the Gospels in which he claims to be God are “legends.” In other words, they are not historically true. Consider, for example, the words of Bart Ehrman. This is how he responds to C. S. Lewis’s argument:
Jesus probably never called himself God. . . . This means that he doesn’t have to be either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. He could be a first-century Palestinian Jew who had a message to proclaim other than his own divinity.
Now, I suspect that some readers may be thinking: What is Ehrman talking about? Of course Jesus claimed to be God! What about when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)? Or when he says “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)? Here it is necessary to make two very important points.
On the one hand, most scholars admit that Jesus does claim to be divine in the Gospel of John. Think here of the two occasions on which Jesus is almost stoned to death because of who he claims to be:
The Jews said to him, “. . . Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? . . . Who do you claim to be?” . . . Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him. (John 8:52, 53, 58-59)
[Jesus said:] “I and the Father are one.” The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We stone you for no good work but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” (John 10:30-33)
Notice here that Jesus refers to himself as “I am” (Greek ego¯ eimi) (John 8:58). In a first-century Jewish context, “I am” was the name of God—the God who had appeared to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 3:14). In a first-century Jewish context, for Jesus to take the name “I am” as his own is tantamount to claiming to be God. Should there be any doubt about this, notice that some of the people in Jesus’s Jewish audience get the point. That’s why they respond by accusing him of “blasphemy” for making himself “God” (Greek theos). They even take up stones to kill him.
On the other hand, as I came to learn, many contemporary scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, do not consider the Gospel of John to be historically true when it depicts Jesus saying these things about himself. One of the most common arguments for this position is that Jesus does not make these kind of divine claims in the three earlier Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (known as the Synoptic Gospels). According to some scholars, we have three Gospels in which Jesus doesn’t claim to be God (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and only one Gospel in which Jesus does (John). Now, if this were correct—and as we will see later on in the book, it isn’t—then it would raise serious doubts about whether Jesus ever actually claimed to be God. If the score is really 3–1, then the divine Jesus in the Gospel of John loses.
More than anything else, it was this idea—the idea that Jesus never actually claimed to be God—that led me personally to begin having serious doubts about who Jesus was. It slowly dawned on me that C. S. Lewis’s Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument had assumed that all four Gospels (including John) tell us what Jesus actually did and said. Take that assumption off the table and everything changes.
(Almost) Losing My Religion
To make a long story very short: by the end of my studies at Vanderbilt, my grip on the Christian faith of my youth was starting to slip. By the time I was about to graduate, I didn’t know what I believed anymore. Little by little, what had started as a quest to find Jesus ended up with me on a path to losing my belief in him.
Then came a major turning point in my life. One evening, not long before I graduated, I was driving around the hills of Nashville by myself, and a thought suddenly dawned on me: Do I really even believe in Jesus anymore? By this point, I had pretty much accepted the idea that we didn’t know who wrote the Gospels and that Jesus may not have actually claimed to be God. Moreover, I didn’t know what to make of passages in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus almost seems to deny that he is God, such as when he says to the rich young man: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). (I promise we’ll look at this passage later.) This led me to start questioning: If Jesus didn’t really claim to be God, then was he? Or was he just a man? How could I believe in the divinity of Jesus if Jesus himself didn’t teach it?