Jesus, Plain and Simple

Gregory Koukl

Who do you believe about Jesus--those who were closest to Him, or those who are two thousand years removed from the events?


The recent edition of Time magazine, January 10, 1994, the one with Las Vegas on the cover, has an article called "Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple." This is like a whole raft of other articles that you see at different times that seem to be the expression of scholars all over the country that undermine, essentially in their conclusion, the beliefs of many Christians. Christians are made to look like the local yokels that really don't know the truth and the truth is that the Bible is a bunch of malarky, myths and made-up stories to make us feel better about life after death. Well, there is an intelligent response to these kinds of articles.


I want to give some specific responses to these claims, apply some simple clear thinking to these assertions so that you'll have a clearer idea of what's going on here.


This article is about three new scholarly books that, as the subtitle suggests, "Try to strip away the traditional Gospel accounts of the man from Nazareth." Now, it's not uncommon to read articles like this in publications like this, though of late the publication that has majored in this kind of story is U.S. News & World Report . I think in the last few years there have been six or seven cover articles that deal with the issue of the Bible or some religious theme. One difficult thing about this is they are a bit disconcerting because they imply that the scholars really know the truth and the scholars are of one mind on this issue. That one mind is simply this, the Bible is a book of legends, books, ideas of the early church tossed in to make preaching points. There are quite a few explanations as to how the Bible came about and what it actually represents. But what there seems to be one voice on is what it does not represent is historical truth. So the millions of Christians out there that believe that God is speaking definitively through the Bible are simply uninformed. They are narrow-minded, provincial types, the Fundamentalists who just haven't caught up with twentieth century scholarship.

Well, I'm here today to calm your fears a little bit. I want to make a few points in general and then respond to some of the specifics in the article. Let me read parts of this article to give you an idea of what we're talking about here. It was written by Richard Osling in the Religion section of the January 10, 1994, Time magazine. It starts out, "'Who do you say that I am?' When Jesus posed this question to his disciples in Matthew's Gospel, Peter emphatically and faithfully replied, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' And what might the answer be today? Three newly published scholarly books put forth a startling revisionist reply. While Jesus may have been a carpenter, that probably meant that he was illiterate and belonged to a low caste of artisans. He did not preach salvation from sin through sacrifice. He never said 'Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God.' Neither did he say 'Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.' For that matter, he probably never delivered the Sermon on the Mount. As for the question posed to Peter and the Disciples, Jesus never asked it. And he never cured any diseases. As for the other miracles, no loaves and fishes, no water into wine, no raising of Lazarus, and certainly no resurrection. What happened to his body then? Most likely it was consumed by wild dogs." It goes on to report that "scholars are coming out of the closet, demanding public attention for the way they think." Among such works are Jesus a Revolutionary Biography , The Lost Gospel , and also The Five Gospels . Then it goes on to explain a little bit more of the points that they've made.


The first thing is that there is a difference between an assertion and an argument. All that's in here are the statements of the opinions of these different scholars.... The second observation is that it's always a good idea to ask yourself the question, "How is it possible that someone could know such a thing?"


I want to give some specific responses to these claims, apply some simple clear thinking to these assertions so that you'll have a clearer idea of what's going on here. Also, you'll get the picture that there's a lot more fiction than fact in these assertions, even though the assertions are made by scholars.

The article says, "For Crossen [the author of Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography ], the deification of Jesus was akin to the worship of Augustus Caesar, a mixture of myth, propaganda and social convention. It was simply a thing that was done in the ancient Mediterranean world." By the way, folks, often you'll hear this in college classes dealing with the Bible as literature. Where the point is made that Jesus is God, the alternate point, which is what Crossen is making here, is that that was just in vogue back then. A lot of people claimed to be God and that was merely something people did back then, and it bears no relationship to the truthfulness or falsity of whether Jesus was God or not. In other words, we can't depend that this is what Jesus said because what's actually going on here is more of the same that happened all around the world, a fictitious assessment of Jesus as God just like they did with Augustus Caesar. It goes on to say this, "Christ's pedigree, his virgin birth in Bethelem of Judea, home of his reputed ancestor King David, is retrospective myth making by writers who had already decided on the transcendental importance of the adult Jesus. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is pure fiction, a creation of Luke's own imagination. Jesus may not have been Jesus' first born and the man that the Bible calls his brother, James, was the eldest child." Crossen argues that Jesus did not cure anyone but that he did heal people by refusing to ostracize them because of their illnesses. He also goes on to say that the incidents of demon exorcism were actually Jesus' ability to use trance-like therapy to "exorcise" demons. "But the incidents themselves were chiefly used to characterize Roman Imperialism as demonic possession." Some heavy claims. There's even a statement here that Jesus was put to death because He was an itinerant preacher and the Romans believed that such wanderlust spread subversion and so they executed Christ.

Well, ought we believe the "revisionist view of Jesus" or not? How might we respond to this?

Yesterday we talked about the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal scholars. They look at the words of Jesus and cast ballots based on whether they think particular statements were actually uttered by Jesus. The ballots are cast by color. They have four different colors that indicate their opinions about a particular verse. The first one is "Jesus undoubtedly said this." The second category is "probably from Jesus." The third one is "doubtful as to whether it's from Jesus or not." And the last one is "Jesus never said this." I'm bringing some of these things up because there will be many times that you'll read articles like this and you'll wonder what to make of them. I want to equip you a little bit and give you a perspective of the landscape.

The first thing is that there is a difference between an assertion and an argument. All that's in here are the statements of the opinions of these different scholars. Now, an assertion is different from an argument in that an argument gives the reasons behind why a particular conclusion is arrived at and why you ought to adopt the same conclusion that they do. Often, conclusions or assertions pass as arguments. I just want to make the point that what you have here are assertions and very few arguments, very little evidence given in support of the conclusion they come to.


Just because lots of people claim they were God doesn't mean that none of them were God. It's a non sequitur--one doesn't follow from the other.


The second observation is that it's always a good idea to ask yourself the question, "How is it possible that someone could know such a thing?" Again, I talked about this a bit yesterday and I won't belabor the point, but many of the problems are not things that I had to go through encyclopedias to resolve. I just stopped and thought about it for a moment. You'll see that in a moment's reflection, some weaknesses of certain assertions become evident. So I encourage you not to get worried when you read something like this, but take a moment to separate the assertions from the argument. And then, even when supporting evidence is not given, ask yourself the question: is this a valid assertion? Is it reasonable? Is it the kind of thing that one could even know? That will take you a long way in resolving some of these issues. Now, let me look at some of the details here.

First of all, there's a comment that "the scholars are coming out of the closet." This information is not new. It isn't that the scholars are just now coming out of the closet and they've known this for a long time and they're just telling everybody else this new information that seriously discredits the Bible. This information has been around in one form or another for almost two centuries. The higher critical school of thought, the Modernist school is what they were called in the early part of this century, has been trenchantly refuted. All of these points that were mentioned in this article have been refuted by conservative scholars long ago. Fortunately, in this article there was some reference to some of those conservative scholars that have spoken against this and some of their arguments are given. So I appreciate the balance in this article. This isn't new and you can have access to the arguments against it.

Let's look at another point. This is a little bit of an argument, not just an assertion, that Crossen says that this deification of Jesus was simply something that was done in the ancient Mediterranean world. People were in the habit of deifying their leaders, therefore it's easy to understand how such a thing could have happened with Jesus. Ergo, Jesus was not really God and the original writers of the Gospels, the writers of the accurate historical information, don't include this deification and it was added afterwards. That's the argument.

First of all, the argument doesn't work. Just because lots of people claim they were God doesn't mean that none of them were God. It's a non sequitur--one doesn't follow from the other. Remember when Howard Hughes had disappeared and they were trying to find him because they wanted to know what to do with all of his money? All of these people were popping up saying they were Howard Hughes. There was a cultural reason why people might claim to be Howard Hughes. But because a lot of people claim to be Howard Hughes, it doesn't follow that a real Howard Hughes doesn't exist. Lots of people in Jesus' time claim to be the Messiah. It doesn't follow that therefore none of them could be the Messiah. That's really the thrust of this particular argument. Lots of people were deified, therefore Jesus couldn't have been God and this was a fictitious assertion. This was just the same kind of deification that people were doing to their leaders. Basically, the point doesn't follow.

Here's another point. This did not happen among the Jews. People were not in the habit of deifying their leaders among the Jews. This objection doesn't apply to the Gospel accounts.


Have you noticed the tendency in the statements that were made to trust some parts of the Biblical accounts and not others?


If you sit back and reflect on some of these points, you realize that there are some problems with it even without doing a lot of research. Have you noticed the tendency in the statements that were made to trust some parts of the Biblical accounts and not others? For example, this author says that the firstborn of Mary was the one that the Bible called James. Now, the Bible calls James Jesus' brother. But this author is suggesting that James is the firstborn, therefore Mary wasn't a virgin, obviously, and Jesus is the younger brother. But why should we trust the details in the Bible about Jesus' younger brother James and not the details about Jesus? But that's preceisely what he's doing.

He goes on to say that Jesus didn't heal anyone, but He did heal them by His refusing to ostracize anyone because of their illness. Wait a minute. How do we know that Jesus didn't ostracize people because of their illness? Because we read it in the text. But it's the same text that says that Jesus did in fact heal them as well. It doesn't mean that we are to believe without a critical mind everything that is written there, but it seems to me we should have good reasons to reject something. Is there contrary evidence or is the reason to reject it just a bias against the supernatural?

It says here that Jesus had some ability to use trance-like therapies to exorcise demons, but their chief use was to characterize Roman Imperialism as demon possession. Now, two things here. First, why don't we believe there are demons? These guys accept that there was a type of exorcism, but not the fact that it was demons. Instead, they cast Roman Imperialism as demon possession. Where does anyone get that idea from the context? Jesus ignored the Romans. Why is it unreasonable to believe that it is really demons here? The point I'm making is, do you see how this explanation in ignoring the details of the text is a complete fabrication? It's almost as lame as the claim that Jesus was executed because Jesus and His Disciples were itinerants and the Romans believed that wanderlust spread subversion. Where do they get that? Is there a single testimony to that explanation, Biblical or secular? Even by reading it you can ask yourself the question, which account is myth? There are people saying that Bible is myth. What really happened? Jesus was executed because He wandered about. Where did you get that? See my point?

Regarding the resurrection--which they flatly disavow--they say that "tales of entombment and resurrection were tales of later day wishful thinking." They say Christians were hoping and wishing that there was life after death so they invented the idea and wrote it into the Bible. Think about this for a moment, the disciples, most notably Peter and Paul (and this is by secular record, not by Biblical record), did not consider the resurrection wishful thinking but actually staked their lives on it. Remember, Paul lost his head on the Apean Way in 64 A.D. Peter said, "Crucify me upside down before I contend that the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen. I saw it!" That's pretty strong testimony if you ask me.

Finally, this idea of "Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple" makes it hard to imagine how such a Jesus could transform the world. I have a quote here from Will Durant. He's the author of The Story of Civilization . In part three, "Caesar and Christ: A History of the Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Beginnings to A.D. 325," Will Durant writes this. Now remember, this guy is a world class historian. He mentions that at first there seem to be contradictions between one Gospel and another and there are dubious statements of history and suspicious resemblance to legends of old pagan gods, etc. All this granted he says, "In the enthusiasm of its discoveries, the higher criticism has applied to the New Testament text tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies, Hammurabi, David, Socrates, would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that many inventors would have concealed. No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism, the outlines of the life, character and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man." Here is a man of world class status that says the higher critics are out in left field and if we follow their methodology nothing would be considered reliable history.

The simple question could be asked, how would one know what Jesus actually said? The answer is simple: you read what those closest to Jesus wrote about Him, rather than take the word of those who are two thousand years removed from the events, those who cast their vote on a multiple choice quiz, choosing among undoubtedly authentic, probably form Jesus, doubtful, and Jesus never said this. Listen friends, the disciples who walked with Jesus, the ones who said, "We did not follow cleverly devised tales, but were eye witnesses," these who heard, who saw with they eyes, who behold, whose hands handled regarding the world of life, these men signed their testimonies with their lifeblood and they all answered with one voice, "Undoubtedly authentic."

This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1994 Gregory Koukl

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