“As a child given religion with no answers to why, just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die. Curiosity killed the catechism. Understanding and wisdom became the rhythm that I played to” – Common
In my previous post (G.O.D Gaining One’s Definition: Common on Truth, Religion and God), I recounted how my love for Common’s song G.O.D (Gaining One’s Definition) was fueled by the picture of reality that Common painted with his poignant lyrics. A picture that resonated with me and seemed to make sense of what I observed and experienced. However upon closer critical scrutiny I found the idea that truth, God, religion and meaning are relative to be untenable. My conclusion was that there must logically be a worldview that is true; that provides an adequate paradigm for human knowledge and action. Naturally the next question after discarding my former relative view of truth was then which worldview or religion is true, and how does one even go about discovering it? A difficult question to settle. My own journey in trying to discover what is true, simply began with what I was familiar with – Jesus.
An insightful point I still agree on with Common is that our encounter and exposure to religion in general, the biblical message and Jesus in particular is more cultural and dogmatic. We do not encounter religions in our upbringing on the basis of whether they are true, but rather on the basis that it is good or what our family has always believed. The emphasis is on the subjective experience and how certain religious practices such as attending church can make one more virtuous, moral, hopeful and motivated. This is in itself not a bad thing at all however it can obscure the reasons for faith. The emphasis is seldom on the objectivity of faith, the actual reasons and grounds for why one should place their trust and faith in Christ for example. As a result I had a largely symbolic, mythical and metaphorical view of Christ. Whether Jesus really lived, died and really rose again from the dead were not matters of factual history, they were irrelevant. The significant point was that they were narratives, similar to good literature, novels, plays, and myths used to convey certain truths about the human condition: good triumphing over evil through love, sacrifice and loving ones neighbour, forgiveness and suffering. An article in The School of Life, Easter for atheists, captured this sentiment:
“Perhaps the most boring question one can ever direct at a religion is to ask whether or not it is ‘true’. Of course (this publication believes), none of its supernatural claims can ever be ‘true’ – but that may not be a reason to dismiss the religion in its entirety, just as one wouldn’t disregard Anna Karenina on the grounds that the tale had been somewhat invented. Religions are intermittently too interesting, wise and consoling to be abandoned to ‘believers’ alone.
…it all ended in humiliation, betrayal and unbearable pain. One of his best friends denounced him. He was tried on trumped up charges. His community abandoned him. The crowds jeered.
Life couldn’t go any more wrong than this Jesus of Nazareth was nailed up on a cross and left to die. He suffered the fate of a criminal and an outcast. (For a long time), no one really gave a damn.
Who knows if it really all happened like this. But that’s not really the point. The truth of the story isn’t the decisive factor. He was clearly not ‘the son of God’, but the story nevertheless retains a critical power to educate the modern world about one or two important things.”
The are three significant problems with the view that I had about Jesus and Christianity. Firstly it failed to actually understand and meaningfully engage what Jesus and his followers taught and believed. It failed to take seriously their experience and claims. Rather I was imposing my own interpretation onto the narrative and text. Any serious reading of the gospels or the epistles would quickly dispel the idea that the actual historicity of the events was irrelevant to Jesus and his followers. Secondly it was largely informed by ignorance that there could be real historical knowledge about the life and death of Jesus similar to other historical figures like Caesar, Alexandria etc. Thirdly again ignorance had the better of me in that I failed to understand why and how Christianity historically originated.
My desire to understand the story of Jesus led to my discovering crucial historical facts that to my surprise, both Christian and non-Christian historians agree on. The historical knowledge on Jesus and his disciples has been significant in persuading and convincing me of the truthfulness and credibility of Jesus. The truth is that we can indeed know “whether it all really happened like this”.
Jesus was an actual historical figure who lived and died by crucifixion
This might seem like an obvious point to make however I recall watching Zeitgeist roughly 10 years ago and coming away slightly skeptical whether Jesus and his disciples lived at all. However historians have ample evidence that Jesus lived. Firstly the life and death of Jesus are confirmed in all four gospels. Secondly there are at least 6 independent ancient non-Christian writers that confirm that Jesus lived and died by crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate. The claim that Jesus was a myth based on ancient religions is simply false. Dale Allison says, “It did not, once upon a time, require much effort to run across mythological proposals, according to which there was no resurrection because there was no historical Jesus: the tale of his rising was modeled on myths of dying and rising gods. Few forward this account of things today,and no responsible scholar can find any truth in it. As Jesus of Nazareth was not a myth, this is an explanation that explains nothing”[i]
Not only do we know that Jesus lived, historians agree that there is strong supportive evidence that Jesus as well as his followers interpreted and understood his actions as miraculous and that Jesus saw himself as God’s agent. Licona quoting Theissen and Merz writes, “[T]here is a consensus that Jesus had a sense of eschatological authority. He saw the dawn of a new world in his actions. Here he goes beyond the Jewish charismatics and prophets known to us before him.”[ii]
That Jesus died by crucifixion is considered a historical fact that is attested in the gospels as well as non biblical sources. One of those non-biblical sources who wrote about Jesus was an ancient Roman historian Tacitus who wrote in 115 A.D. in his book the Annals:
“…Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus”.
Tacitus confirms that Christ suffered an extreme penalty (crucifixion) under Pilate. Another is Lucian of Samosata a Greek satirist and non Christian writer who lived during the 2nd century who wrote, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day-the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account”. The Talmud, a Rabbinic Judaism book written by thousands of rabbis containing their teachings and opinions also reports, “on the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged”[iii]. Ancient sources and historians confirm what the gospels claim that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Liberal historian John Dominic Crossan who rejects the divinity of Jesus sums up the historical view on the life and death of Jesus:
“That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be”.
Agnostic New Testament scholar and historian Bart Ehrman also affirms that the weight of historical evidence overwhelmingly supports the fact that Jesus existed and indeed the real myth is the idea that Jesus is a mythical figure.
How and why did Christianity as a religion originate historically?
The disciples of Jesus responsible for the birth and growth of Christianity actually believed that Jesus had risen from the dead; and because of that they saw this as undeniable proof that Jesus was who he claimed to be- the Son of God. When you read the book of Acts; we have a record of what they claimed and how they tried to persuade others of the truthfulness of Christianity.
“We are witnesses of everything he [Jesus] did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” Acts 10:39-41
The foundation for the gospel and Christianity according to the first Christians was not because they believed that Jesus was a good moral teacher although he was; but rather because they believed that they had seen him die and rise from the dead after that. They claimed and believed that they were witnesses to his bodily resurrection. The disciples of Jesus were Jews steeped in the Old Testament who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah promised to deliver Israel and restore its political Kingdom. The death of Jesus was a catastrophe for a number of reasons.
(1) The Messiah and the Son of God was not supposed to die- a dead Messiah was a contradiction in terms. Jesus’ death meant that he was not who he had claimed to be, and who they thought he was. His death would have meant that Jesus had made some bold claims about his identity but in the end he was a liar, fraud or was deranged and got himself killed.
(2) Jesus’ death through crucifixion according to Jewish law would have meant that Jesus was cursed by God. (Deutoronomy 21:23)
The death of Jesus was catastrophic for his followers and would have left them greatly disillusioned to say the least. So what happened to the disciples after the death of Jesus that convinced them that Jesus was the messiah and the Son of God? Christianity originated because the disciples of Jesus believed and claimed that they had seen him risen from the dead. According to his disciples – the resurrection is significant because it was the ultimate evidence that indeed Jesus was who he claimed to be; the Messiah and the Son of God.
At this point one does not have to accept that Jesus rose from dead: perhaps the disciples made it up to vindicate their teacher, perhaps they hallucinated seeing him. Whatever the reason is for the claim; the crucial point is that Christianity originated because the disciples of Jesus claimed and believed that they saw Jesus risen from the dead. We only know about Jesus today, not because his followers thought he was a good wise teacher but because they thought he had risen from the dead. Without the belief in the resurrection, Christianity would never have originated. It is the crux, the central event, the pillar behind the Christian faith. It is why theologian James D.G. Dunn says: ‘It is almost impossible to dispute that at the historical roots of Christianity lie some visionary experiences of the first Christians, who understood them as appearances of Jesus, raised by God from the dead’[iv]
I grew up with a mythical view of Jesus; uncertain of whether he really lived and did the things he did. However, I did not think that was really relevant. The point of a myth is not whether it happened, but what it means. Myths through imagery and narratives that fire and stir the imagination are meant to lift us up out of ourselves and give us a vision of what being human means, and how our lives fit into this cosmic chain of being. I thought Jesus was another of those great myths, probably the greatest of all myths. However it turns out the real myth was the one I had concerning Jesus, his disciples and the origins of Christianity. I discovered that Jesus was a real historical figure, who had a following and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Soon after his death, his disciples believed and claimed he was the Son of God who had risen from the dead and thus Christianity was born. I now had a partial answer to the condition Common found himself in as he was growing up that “as a child given religion with no answers to why. Just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die”.
[i] D. Allison. (2005). EXPLAINING THE RESURRECTION: CONFLICTING CONVICTIONS. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. p121
[ii] M. Licona. (2014).Historians and Miracle Claims. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. p121
[iii] G. Habermas, M. Licona. (2004) The case for the resurrection of Jesus
[iv] G. Habermas.(2005). RESURRECTION RESEARCH FROM 1975 TO THE PRESENT: WHAT ARE CRITICAL SCHOLARS SAYING? Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus p150
Good reads on the historicity of Jesus
- Sens Homines. The Person Of Jesus Part 4: The Existence of Jesus
- Chab123. Historiography 101: A Look at the Role of the Testimony and Witness in the New Testament.
- J Warner Wallace. Is Jesus Simply a Retelling of the Horus Mythology?coldcasechristianity.com