October 17, 2012 by mattfradd
The credibility of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith. If he is credible then we can trust what he said about God—including, for example, that God is a Trinity of three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It all comes down to the credibility of Jesus.
Some have tried to portray Jesus as merely a good teacher, someone who proposed wise moral teachings. Others have viewed him as a prophet or a mystic. But Jesus claimed more than this.
He claimed, as one of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, to be God himself.
This is a striking claim, and it is either true or false. If it is true then he is, indeed, the Lord of the universe and the Christian faith is true.
So what are the alternatives?
- He was a liar, a religious charlatan who knowingly made false claims.
- He was a lunatic, someone who was sincere but deluded.
- He was a mere legend and didn’t exist at all.
Let us look at each of these.
The Liar Hypothesis
If Jesus was a liar then it follows that he was a bad man, for it is not a good thing to intentionally deceive people regarding your identity, causing them leave everything to follow you (Luke 5:11), and encouraging them to worship you (Matthew 28:17).
The problem with this option, however, is that no one who reads the life of Christ believes him to be a bad man. “Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek,’ says Lewis, “and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.”
The Lunatic Hypothesis
What about the second option? Perhaps Jesus sincerely but erroneously believed himself to be God.
After all, lots of people claim to be God. Insane asylums are full of such people.
The problem with this option is by and large the same as the accusing Jesus of being a bad man – his character. Those who knew him and those who read of his life believe him to be wise and enlightened.
Indeed, his moral teachings—such as on love even for one’s enemies—are regarded as classics and as being among the loftiest articulations of moral values in history.
Read the words of Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 :1-10 and ask yourself, could these really be the words of an insane man?
The Legend Hypothesis
Some have claimed that Jesus never existed, that he is a mere legend, or that if he did exist, so much legend has grown up around him that we cannot trust the New Testament documents that describe his life and teachings.
I will briefly outline three reasons why this is not true:
1. The Reliability of the New Testament Documents
The New Testament was written within the first generation after the death of Christ, while the eye witnesses were still alive. We therefore have better sources for Jesus than we do for most of the major figures of history. Our earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch, 400 years after his death, but historians don’t doubt that Alexander the Great existed or that we have a basic knowledge of his life.
Furthermore, the New Testament documents are better attested than any other works of antiquity. We have five hundred manuscripts that are dated earlier than a.d. 500. The next best attested ancient text we have is Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, of which we have only fifty copies that date within 500 years of its origin. The multiplicity of New Testament manuscripts that we have enable us to check them against each other and ensure that they have been reliably transmitted to us, with very few variant readings. This means that they reliably communicate their original message and are not a conglomeration of legends that built up slowly over time.
2. Extra-Biblica Sources
You can read about Jesus of Nazareth, Pontius Pilate, and even John the Baptist from non-Biblical sources of the period, such as the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-c. 100). Other early authors who make reference to Jesus and the early Christian community include the Roman official Pliny the Younger (AD 61 – c. AD 112) and the Roman historians Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117), and Suetonius (AD c. 69 –c. 122).
3. Martyrdom of Apostles
To say that the apostles made up the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, you must also be willing to say that they endured horribly painful deaths, including being flayed alive, crucified, stoned, and beheaded for what they knew to be a myth.
These, and many other reasons, make it clear why, according to eminent historian Michael Grant, “no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”
But if Jesus was not a liar, a lunatic, or a legendary figure, then we must be prepared to accept him as what he claimed to be—the Lord of the universe.
“You must make your choice,” Lewis wrote. “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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” – C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity
So, what choice have you made?