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INTRODUCTION: THE BIG QUESTION

WOULD THE REAL JESUS PLEASE STAND UP?

“Deconstruction” is a hot button word in Christian circles right now. Roughly speaking, deconstruction is the process of Christians reexamining what they were taught about Christianity and cutting loose the dead weight they deem unnecessary or problematic. Some see this as a good thing. After all, from time to time, we all should examine what we believe. Others see it as a negative because many have deconstructed themselves right out of Christianity. In the best situations, a person will “deconstruct”—jettisoning the inaccurate and unnecessary—and then “reconstruct” on a firm foundation of essential Christian truths. For me, I never “reconstructed” because I never “deconstructed.” I only ever “constructed.” I built from the ground up because something really weird happened to me when I was 31. I became a Christian. 

Growing up, my mom would take my sisters and me to a Baptist church, but nothing else in my life was reinforcing that one or two hours a week on Sunday morning. I became a skeptic at a fairly young age. By the time I was in college, I was perfectly fine calling myself an atheist. So, when that weird thing happened and I started following Jesus, I had to first pour the concrete and let it dry because I didn’t even have a foundation to build on.

Many people have asked me what caused the change. Those who know me assume it was some argument or evidence that made me leave atheism. Yet, what made me believe in God wasn’t any logical argument or examinable evidence, but a personal experience where I sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit. So, this book will not be going into arguments and evidence for the existence of God—though plenty exist [1]. Instead, this book will answer the question: Why Jesus? Of all the deities and spiritual leaders that people have put their faith in throughout history, why follow Jesus? Of all the religions in the world, why become a Christian? Though this book lays out how I would answer those questions, to be clear this book isn’t about me at all. It’s about getting to know Jesus of Nazareth, easily the most famous and influential person in the history of the world.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s in South Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, where everyone believed in God but no one took their belief too seriously. On the other hand, they took it just seriously enough to give me disapproving looks when I said I didn’t believe in God. Back then, unlike today, atheism didn’t give you the proper “edge” for a new circle of cooler friends. Yet, despite atheism growing more common today, true atheists are still hard to find. After all, no one can be 100% sure God doesn’t exist. As I like to say, an honest atheist is really an agnostic. 

So, what we really have (as one author puts it) is “the rise of the Nones” [2]. That is, those who pick “none” when asked their religion of affiliation. Many people are okay with believing in some general idea of a supernatural power, i.e. “God.” What most are really against is “organized religion.” They’re not really atheists; they’re a-religious. Some end up there through careful thought; some end up there because of bad religious experiences; others don’t want to abandon the idea of “God” (and the logical consequences that come with abandoning it [3]), but they also don’t want anyone telling them what to do—even their Creator. They want to have their communion bread and eat it too.

When I first started believing in God, I wondered, If I look into Jesus and then into, say, the Greek god Zeus, would I find good reasons to follow one over the other? Would the evidence for Jesus be just as flimsy as evidence for Zeus? Would I remain a person with just a general belief in “God” or would I actually end up following one religion over others? So, I started building. I started “constructing.” Those questions resulted in this book. I did find reasons—good reasons, I believe—to trust Jesus over others. But something else concerned me early on: Which Jesus do I follow? In other words, a lot of versions of “Jesus” are out there. Would the real Jesus please stand up?

THE MISINFORMATION AGE

In three of the four Gospels about Jesus of Nazareth found in the New Testament, we’re told about a conversation between Jesus and his twelve main disciples [4]. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples give several answers, odd answers to our modern ears: the recently beheaded John the Baptist or the long-dead Elijah or Jeremiah or another back-from-the-dead Jewish prophet. Then Jesus asks them this:

 

“But who do you say that I am?” [5]

 

Jesus knew how to use questions to stir things up. And this question may be the most important question ever asked. Throughout history, people have answered Jesus’ question in different ways—and this carries over to this very day. It seems everyone has an opinion about Jesus of Nazareth. If you’re trying to uncover the real Jesus, it gets pretty confusing pretty quickly! 

Let me give you a brief taste from the “Jesus” buffet.

Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians all believe Jesus is both fully God and fully human, who existed eternally with God the Father before being born to a virgin through a miracle of the Holy Spirit, who is also eternally God—yet there’s only one God. You get all that? Needless to say, many find this terribly confusing. These major branches of Christianity also believe Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead three days later.

Muslims agree with Christians that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, performed miracles, lived a sinless life, and he’ll return in the future for Judgment Day. He’s also “the Messiah” and both Allah’s “Word” and “Spirit” [6]. But Muslims believe he didn’t die on a cross nor rise three days later, and he’s certainly not God-in-the-flesh nor the “Son of God.” The Qur’an makes it absolutely clear: to believe Allah has a son is ridiculous—and blasphemy. Jesus is simply Allah’s prophet. 

Many in the New Age spirituality movement make Jesus out to be an enlightened being, not much different than Buddha. Famous author and guru, Deepak Chopra offers the best bargain for your buck, teaching there’s not only a second Jesus, but a third. The first was a historical man. The second “Jesus” is the theological tradition of the historical church (which has nothing to do with the historical Jesus, according to Chopra). Finally, the third “Jesus” is a state of consciousness that can radically transform your life [7]. (It’s impressive how modern folks like Chopra can see through 2,000 years of church history, including the ancient New Testament itself, to reveal the “true” Jesus—a Jesus always coincidentally aligned with their own personal beliefs.)

Adherents of Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology, which has Tom Cruise instead of Jesus) understand Jesus to be a man who lived 2,000 years ago who better than anyone else ever demonstrated “Christ,” a spiritual idea… or maybe it’s a divine idea…? Actually, it’s hard to understand what Christian Scientists believe about Jesus. According to Christian Science—the most inaccurately named religious movement of all time since it’s neither based in science nor Christianity—all physical matter is an illusion, so this book (or the device you’re reading it on) doesn’t really exist. So, let’s move on.

Latter-day Saints—a.k.a. Mormons—believe Jesus is the firstborn spirit child of God (a.k.a. “Heavenly Father”), and Lucifer is Jesus’ spirit brother [8]. Mormon theology teaches that God used to be as human as me and you, and their prophet Brigham Young, successor of Joseph Smith (the founder of the LDS church), taught that God was Mary’s “first husband” and Jesus “was not begotten by the Holy Ghost” but “begotten by his Father, as we were of our fathers” [9]. In other words… Well, I think you get the idea. This resulted in the earthly birth of Jesus. Another belief unique to Mormons is that after his death and resurrection, Jesus made an encore appearance in North America to ancient Native Americans.

 

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, and his resurrection, but unlike traditional Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe Jesus is eternal God. He’s a created being lower than God but higher than the angels, who existed with God—Jehovah—before his earthly birth. The idea that Jesus was a special creation of God is a throwback to a belief rejected by the early church called Arianism.

Other beliefs about Jesus rejected by the early church include the teachings of Apollinaris the Younger, who said Jesus was born strictly human and then divinity entered into him (echoing an even earlier rejected teaching called Adoptionism). In response, Nestorius unintentionally made Jesus schizophrenic by declaring that Jesus had two distinct persons within him. Then, in response to Nestorius another rejected teaching was born (and yet another fun word to pronounce) called Monophysitism, which said Jesus was completely and exclusively divine. Let’s not forget, ancient followers of Docetism and Gnosticism believed that Jesus was completely spirit and only seemed to be human.

Quite the opposite, many modern people say Jesus was not supernatural at all, but just wise, moral, and completely and exclusively human. They say the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as supernatural is a legend that developed over time from a kernel of truth, kind of like the stories of King Arthur or Robin Hood. Some atheists (some in irritated fashion over the internet) proclaim Jesus never existed at all—that he’s a complete fabrication like Zeus or the Monkey King. 

Meanwhile, Charles Manson, David Koresh, Christ Ahnsahnghong, and other modern cult leaders have claimed to be Jesus himself! Take note, all three of the cult leaders named above are now dead. So, none of them could’ve possibly been Jesus according to the New Testament, which says once Jesus returns he’s here to stay—Done deal! [10] But don’t be too disappointed. At the time of this book’s writing, several fascinating fellows are claiming to be the returned Jesus in South Africa, Brazil, Siberia, England, and Japan—and if the pattern continues, plenty more are to come once these guys bite the big one.

The word heresy may seem old fashioned to many modern ears, but it hasn’t stopped the world from creating more heresy for the church to decry. The earliest memory I have of a public protest by Christians was over the 1988 Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ. In the film, Jesus, among other things, has both premarital and postmarital sex with Mary Magdalene, who later dies giving birth to their child, so Jesus (clearly on the rebound) goes Old Testament (or Mormon) and marries sisters Mary and Martha. 

Perhaps the biggest pop culture bane to Christians since the turn of the millennium has been the release of the 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, selling millions of copies worldwide, resulting in a movie starring Tom Hanks. In this page-turner, the “lost history” of Jesus is uncovered. This includes—again—him being married to Mary Magdalene and starting a family. (I have yet to figure out why this is such an attractive, scandalous idea. Even if Jesus were married, what does this prove other than he was a first-century, heterosexual Jew?) The Da Vinci Code also claimed Jesus was declared God-in-the-flesh at the Council of Nicea in AD 325, as every lazy internet atheist too lethargic to google the Council of Nicea has claimed ever since. Supposedly, Emperor Constantine suppressed the “Gnostic Gospels,” which portray Jesus as merely human. (Ironically, the real Gnostic Gospels do the exact opposite.)

Others have claimed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet [11], a Greek philosopher [12], an armed revolutionary [13], and even a traveling Buddhist monk [14]. It seems as often as I get a haircut, scholars announce they’ve discovered yet another “lost gospel” containing secrets of Jesus the church supposedly tried to bury.

Do you have a headache yet?

Today, uncovering the real Jesus of Nazareth isn’t getting any easier. Thanks to the internet, every contrived theory has found new life. Social media theologians make Jesus out to be progressive, while others make him out to be conservative—either politically, morally, or theologically. Others make Jesus out to be the bestest best-friend you’d ever want (who’s just waiting to give you a big ol’ hug); a blood-soaked MMA fighter destroying evil and casting sinners into hell; a fiery crusader for social justice; or just a really nice guy like your hippy neighbor. If I had a dollar for every Jesus question I receive from a student that started with, “I was watching this video online and…,” I’d be writing this book from my yacht in the Caribbean, not my home office (i.e., guest bedroom) in New Jersey. Once, I even had a history teacher try to prove to me Jesus was a rip-off of Egyptian mythology with a Youtube video any student of history should have been embarrassed to endorse. Regardless of your own religious beliefs (or lack of), it should be obvious that a lot of bad fan fiction about Jesus of Nazareth is out there. We’ve been told we live in the Information Age, but the Misinformation Age is just as valid a label.

REINTRODUCING JESUS

If you’re feeling dizzy, don’t despair. We’re going to work all this out. The goal of this book is to hack through the jungle-like weeds, dig through the mountain of sludge, and block out all the noise to uncover the real Jesus. For two thousand years, people have been talking about Jesus. More songs have been sung, more books have been written, and more artwork has been created about Jesus than anyone else who has ever lived. But even those in churches are wondering, Is what I learned in Sunday School and CCD [15] accurate? Did all those songs, books, and artwork get Jesus right or are they just sentimental, wishful thinking? 

Perhaps it’s time to reintroduce Jesus to the world. Perhaps we need to start constructing from the ground up. 

In Part I, we’re going to look at how we know about Jesus in the first place. To start, we can’t discuss Jesus of Nazareth without referring to the Christian Bible. So, in Chapters 1 and 2, we’ll unpack whether the New Testament holds up to historical standards or has it been hopelessly blended with fiction, as so many claim. Is it a reliable source for learning about Jesus? Has it been changed over time? Can we know if the right writings made it into the New Testament?

Then, in Chapter 3, we’ll look at other ancient writings but non-Christian writings to see what they tell us about Jesus. Do these line up with the New Testament? We’ll also consider if Jesus is just a copycat of older, pagan myths. 

In Part II, we’ll dive deeper into what the primary sources tell us about Jesus, focusing on two massive and unusual claims about Jesus: his resurrection and his godhood—easily the two most controversal beliefs about him. 

So, in Chapter 4, we’ll look at the earliest known information about Jesus, an important creed—a statement of beliefs—older than the New Testament itself. What does it tell us? Then, we’ll talk about Jesus’ brother James. That might sound like an odd turn to take, but trust me: it has something to do with that early creed. 

Then, we’ll bring all of this together in Chapter 5 to consider whether the Christian story of Jesus’ resurrection holds up to scrutiny. Do we know Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a legend that developed over time? How do we know ancient Jews or Romans didn’t invent a religion that worships a crucified God-man?

From there, we’ll move on to grappling with Jesus’ divinity. In Chapters 6 and 7, we’ll tackle questions like, Did Jesus’ first followers really believe he was God? Did Jesus believe he was God? If Jesus is the one and only God, why is he constantly talking to this other divine being called “the Father”? On top of all that, how could someone possibly function as both a limited human and limitless divine being?  

 

After all this heavy lifting about Jesus, we’re going to take a brief intermission, grab a snack, and think about something called worldview. We’re going to consider how our personal philosophy affects how we interpret things. 

Finally, in Part III, we’ll look at what Jesus actually taught. At this point in the book, we would’ve spent a lot time exploring this fascinating person, so what did he have to say? What did Jesus think about religion and spirituality (Chapter 8)? What was this “kingdom” he always talked about (Chapter 9)? And what do his teachings reveal about himself (Chapter 10)? Was he intense or laidback? Was he a lion or a lamb? Who is Jesus of Nazareth really, other than the most famous person to ever live? Of all the “versions” of Jesus out there, which one gets him right?

Now, that’s a lot of ground to cover in such a short book! If you’re thinking, “This is not a short book!”, let me assure you, it moves along rather quickly. Each chapter is broken up into nugget-sized sections. I will be giving no awards for reading the whole thing as fast as possible, so take your time and mull over what you’re reading.

As you read and get to know the most renowned person to ever live, we’ll be using theology and apologetics to tackle some tough questions about Jesus. Don’t worry! You’ll hardly notice, I promise! Doing theology is simply a nerdy way of saying, We’re connecting the religious dots. That other nerdy word, apologetics, has nothing to do with apologizing; it’s from the Greek word apologia—to give a defense. Apologetics provide logical reasons to hold certain views over others. If you’re thinking, “Theology? Apologetics? This doesn’t sound like something I’d read”—Great! This book is for you! I wrote it for someone who would never read a theology or apologetics book.

In fact, if you’re not the type of person to read any book by a Christian, this book is for you. Listen, former atheists like me are not your typical Christians sitting in the pews on Sunday. We’re like foreign exchange students who are welcomed into the school with open arms, but we still all hang out at our own lunch table. On top of that, I’ve lived in New Jersey most of my life. Be warned, New Jerseyans can be a bit rough around the edges, and New Jerseyans who follow Jesus tend to be considered a bit odd by both other New Jerseyans and other Christians. New Jersey ain’t the Bible belt. So, like me, this book is a bit unusual. But, again, this book isn’t about me. It’s about Jesus of Nazareth. And he’s so much more unusual and interesting.

It seems that everyone has an opinion about Jesus of Nazareth. (Maybe this is a clue that he’s important!) So, how would you answer Jesus’ question?

Who do you say he is? 

While you think about it, please allow me to reintroduce Jesus of Nazareth.

NOTES

 

[1] Some good places to start: Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe, Stephen C. Meyer (HarperOne, 2021); The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Timothy Keller (Penguin Books, 2008); Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World, Timothy Keller (Penguin Books, 2016); The Atheist Who Didn't Exist: Or the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments, Andy Bannister (Lion Hudson, 2015); I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Norman L. Geisler, Frank Turek (Crossway, 2004).

[2] James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014).

[3] For one, if the universe and life came into existence by random chance with no reason or purpose, life ultimately has no reason or purpose. If that’s the case, also say goodbye to things like morality and human rights.

[4] Matthew 16:13–20; Mark 8:27–30; Luke 9:18–20.

[5] Emphasis mine.

[6] Qur’an 4:171; Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Hadith 377.

[7] Deepak Chopra, “Deepak Chopra on ‘The Third Jesus,’” Youtube, April 14, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CZymnE6zCU.

[8] Do you think they had bunk beds?

[9] Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism - Shadow or Reality? Fifth Edition, (Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987. Reformatted 2008), 260–261.

[10] Revelation 19–21.

[11] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[12] “Apollonius of Tyana: The Greek philosopher that many believe is Jesus Christ.” GreekCityTimes. April 12, 2022. https://greekcitytimes.com/2022/04/12/apollonius-of-tyana-jesus-christ/

[13] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, (New York, NY: Random House, 2014).

[14] “Jesus wasn’t crucified but died a Buddhist monk in Kashmir, book contends.” BaltimoreSun. December 25, 1994. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-12-25-1994359065-story.html

[15] Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, a religious education program of the Catholic Church.

Excerpt from CHAPTER 1: TELEPHONE GAME TRAUMA

TEXTUAL CRITICISM: IT AIN’T THE TELEPHONE GAME

 

Because of the wealth of New Testament manuscripts, scholars can compare these manuscripts and identify errors or changes, called variants, made by the scribes. Unsurprisingly, the scribes—don’t forget, they copied by hand—weren’t perfect, but the vast majority of mistakes are nothing to be concerned about. Most are spelling mistakes or other simple copying errors (like omitting small words or reversing word order)—simple, forgivable mistakes which have no bearing on how the New Testament is understood. Not only are these variants obvious, but word order in Greek (unlike English) is significantly less important to how a sentence is read. So, these variants have little, if any, impact on understanding or English translations.

Often opponents of Christianity try to portray the passing down of the New Testament over time like the Telephone Game, a game you may have played in school as a child. In the Telephone Game, someone whispers a sentence into someone’s ear, and then the second person whispers the same sentence into another person’s ear, and on and on and on, down the line. When the last person receives the sentence, he says it out loud for all to hear. In the majority of cases, the sentence is severely altered by the time it reaches the end of the line. So, a sentence that starts as “Jacqueline likes kangaroos,” ends up being, “Jekyll in line licks cans of ooze.” Numerous times, I’ve had people say to me with the utmost confidence, “You know, the Bible has been changed over time like the Telephone Game” [1]. The problem is, this is downright inaccurate.

To start, instead of thinking of the passing down of the New Testament as a straight, single line, think of it as a family tree with many branches giving birth to many more branches. A family tree spreads in many directions as it multiplies. Therefore, if one branch becomes corrupted, the other branches won’t be corrupted in the same way. Further, the passed-along message is only whispered (so no one else can hear it) and can’t be repeated. The game sets up the failure! The New Testament, on the other hand, is a written document, which means it can be reread and rechecked. 

So, to sum up this lame comparison: 

 

The Telephone Game 

    1. has only one line of transmission; 

    2. the message is spoken (in whispers);

    3. repeating isn’t allowed. 

 

The New Testament 

    1. has many lines of transmission; 

    2. was written; 

    3. because it was written, it can be reread, examined, and compared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Think of it this way. Pick any best-seller: Of Mice and Men, Catch 22, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the considerably less-known Harry Pot Head and the Philosophers Stoned [2]. To keep your attention, I’m going to pick the filthy book 50 Shades of Grey

As evidence of the continuing downward spiral of all of creation, this best-seller spawned sequels and movies. When it first became popular, I would find myself eating lunch as my fellow high school teachers read it in the teacher’s lounge. In my youth, I spent quite a bit of time around crass people, so I’m not easily shocked, but being aware of the sexually explicit subject matter of the book, I couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward. What were they visualizing as I, only inches away, innocently ate my ham sandwich? Not to mention, my fellow teachers taking seriously any novel with characters named Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey was offensive to me as a literature teacher. But I digress. 

Let’s say, one day, I decide to create my own version of 50 Shades of Grey. Since I’ve only ever witnessed women reading it, let’s imagine I decided to make Ms. Steele’s escapade more appealing to men by adding some fly fishing and bare-knuckled fist fighting. I, then, publish my own “special edition” of the novel with the same cover as the legitimate version and manage to print and distribute several hundred copies before I’m sued for copyright infringement and printing stops.

Now, jump ahead 2,000 years. A young lady comes across my “special edition” in a dusty store that sells these things called books. As she reads it, something seems strange. What does the savvy person of AD 4,023 do? Well, since it was such a popular book, there are still plenty of other copies of 50 Shades of Grey around. So, our hero jumps into her teleportation machine and collects a handful of other copies and compares them to my “special edition.” It wouldn’t take long for our savvy sleuth to see something has been changed—that my version didn’t match all the other copies.

That’s how textual criticism works.

Here’s another helpful illustration. Imagine we had five ancient manuscripts and noticed variations among all five of them in the same exact sentence. This sounds like a big problem, right? But is it? See if you can figure out how the original sentence reads. Which sentence is the original?

 

  1. Jesus answered, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.

  2. Jesus said, I am the Way and the Truth and the Light.

  3. Jesus answered, I am the Way and Truth and Life.

  4. I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, Jesus answered.

  5. Jesus answered, I am the Truth and the Light.

 

Highlighting the differences between each sentence will help us:

 

 

First, we can conclude that the original sentence starts with “Jesus answered,” since only Sentence #4 puts “Jesus answered” at the end of the sentence, and Sentence #2 is the only one starting with “Jesus said.” Likewise, we can easily conclude Sentence #1 should include the word “and,” and Sentence #3 should include “the” twice since all the others do. Similarly, Sentence #5 is clearly missing the word “the Way and.”

Notice only one of these variations we corrected so far affects the meaning of the sentence. That is, Sentence #5 missing “the Way” does impact the full meaning of the sentence. Yet, the others so far, by missing small words like “and” and “the” or reversing word order, don’t change anything about how the sentence is understood. The majority of variations in ancient New Testament manuscripts are insignificant mistakes like these. 

Finally, we have the variant of “Life” versus “Light.” This is tougher to solve because not only does this variant affect the sentences’ meanings, but two of the sentences read “Light” and three read “Life.” Since three out of five say “Life,” we can lean towards “Life” being the original. Yet, how can we be sure? 

Tell you what, let’s make it harder. Let’s say we had six manuscripts and three read “Life” and three read “Light.” We have a conundrum! Half of the manuscripts say one thing and the other half say the other. What do we do? 

This is where the dating of the manuscripts is helpful. Determining the exact year a manuscript was produced is near impossible, but textual critics have ways of determining the approximate time period, often based on the style of the manuscript and the material composing it. In textual criticism, the rule of thumb is: the older the manuscript, the better. (Though, there are exceptions. Other factors of quality are also considered.)

Let me give you a geeky analogy. I loved Star Wars as a kid, and I was excited to see Return of the Jedi in theaters when it was released in 1983, but let’s imagine I never watched it again until many years later. So, in 2024, I sit down with my son and daughter to watch it on an online streaming platform, and I’m bewildered to find differences from what I remember. For one, when Darth Vader turns against the evil Emperor and gives his own life to save Luke, his son, he bellows a somewhat cheesy, “Nooooooooo!” Though I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case in 1983. Then, in the closing scene, Luke sees the spirits of his mentors, Obi-Wan and Yoda, along with the spirit of his father. Now, I clearly remember thinking as a kid in 1983, “Who’s that old guy? Oh! That’s Darth Vader!” Yet, in the version I’m watching in 2024, the spirit isn’t an old man but a young man. What in the name of bantha feces is going on here?

 

So, I ask my friend to dig out his old DVD of Return of the Jedi from the early 2000s. We watch it and, yup, Darth Vader does not let out any sort of cry when he destroys the Emperor. Yet, Darth Vader’s spirit is still some young whippersnapper! Was I remembering wrongly? Is my memory that bad? Months later, I find a VHS tape from the 80s of Return of the Jedi at a yard sale. So, I scourge rummage sales until I find a used, working VHS player, figure out how to connect it to my computer, and boom—there he is! Despite the grainer picture, it’s unmistakable—the spirit of Darth Vader standing with Obi-Wan and Yoda is an old man!

As any Star Wars nerd knows, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, has made several small changes to his original trilogy at different times over the years—some for better and some for worse. Regardless, this geeky allegory gives us a good idea of how textual criticism works and why it’s important to look at the earliest, best manuscripts. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our illustration, when we compare the dates of our six (hypothetical) manuscripts, we find the older (and best quality) manuscripts read “Life.” Thus, the original manuscript likely reads “Life.”

Let me point out, this is why we’re fortunate to have many other New Testament manuscripts to compare than just these (hypothetical) six. Let New Testament scholar N.T. Wright remind you: “There is better evidence for the New Testament than any other ancient book” [3].

So, we can be confident that the original sentence in our hypothetical manuscript problem reads: 

 

“Jesus answered, I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” [4]

 

Now, here’s the thing: I pulled a fast one on you! Above, I asked, Which sentence is the original? But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed none of the five sentences I gave you above were the correct original. All five sentences had at least one variant not found in the original. I did this because I wanted you to see that even if we didn’t have a single manuscript that was 100% free from error, we still could distinguish the original sentence by comparing and contrasting the manuscripts at our disposal. 

 

This is how textual criticism works. Of course, this is simplified for the sake of illustration, but it’s not all that complicated to figure out the original wording by comparing the manuscripts. If this did seem complicated, this is all you need to remember: textual criticism compares manuscripts, and by doing this the vast majority of errors by scribes become easily identifiable and fixable.

 

NOTES:

[1] The Christian Bible is composed of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We’ll only be discussing the New Testament. For the Old Testament, see our online bonus chapter "Okay, Boomer (Part 1) Did Jesus Trust the Old Testament?," especially the section "TOO OLD TO TRUST?"

[2] Don’t believe me? Google it!

[3] N. T. Wright, “Foreword,” The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce, 6th ed., (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1981), x.

[4] John 14:6.

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Excerpt from CHAPTER 5: CREED (THE PREQUEL)

JAMES THE JERK TO JAMES THE JUST

Despite evidence of Jesus’ siblings acting like big ol’ jerks towards him during his ministry, we find them heavily involved in the Christian movement after Jesus’ crucifixion. Amazingly, we find letters in the New Testament written by two of Jesus’ brothers—James and Jude. In a letter of the apostle Paul, he matter-of-factly mentions that Jesus’ brothers traveled around with their wives spreading Jesus’ message [1]. In the Book of Acts, we find Jesus’ siblings joining with Jesus’ disciples in prayer:

 

And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. (Acts 1:13–14)

 

Now, this is an interesting development! As we saw earlier, tension existed between Jesus and his siblings during his ministry. His own siblings were so opposed to following him, they goaded him to do something that would’ve gotten him killed. Yet, here, we find Jesus’ siblings in “one accord” with Jesus’ closest disciples. What changed? Because something clearly did!

With the exception of James, we know nearly nothing else about Jesus’ siblings. We see James elsewhere in the New Testament (including the letter he authored) and even in non-biblical, ancient sources. Looking into James will give us a good idea why Jesus’ siblings went from opposing him to being heavily involved in the early church.

In the Book of Acts, which takes place right after the events in the Gospels, after another James (one of Jesus’ twelve disciples—the brother of John) is put to death [2], the disciple Peter is arrested but rescued from prison by an angel. He then flees to the home of another follower of Jesus, where the servant girl is so shocked to see him that she runs to tell the others, leaving the fugitive Peter standing awkwardly outside the locked gate. When Peter finally gets inside (I imagine him as very sweaty at this point), he shares his story and tells the others to go tell these things to “James and to the brothers” [3]. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul writes of his conversion from someone who oversaw the arrest and even execution of the followers of Jesus to a devout follower Jesus. Three years after his conversion, he traveled to Jerusalem to consult Peter, meeting no other apostles while there “except James, the Lord’s brother” [4]. Fourteen years later, after starting many churches throughout the ancient world, Paul returned to Jerusalem where James, Peter, and John, who were “pillars” of the church, gave Paul “the right hand of fellowship” [5]. One can’t help but notice James is specifically mentioned in all of these accounts among the leaders of the church. So, not only did James become a follower of his brother’s teachings, but he also rose to prominence within the early Jerusalem church. Clearly, he became part of the inner circle of the first disciples. 

During his ministry, Jesus had different circles of disciples. His twelve were the “inner circle,” [6] but Jesus had more disciples other than these twelve men [7], including women [8]. Even within the twelve, there was an inner circle—an inner circle of the inner circle, if you will—composed of three disciples: Peter, John, and James (brother of John) [9]. After Jesus’ crucifixion, the evidence shows the other James (brother of Jesus) became part of the “inner circle of the inner circle.” Early church historian Eusebius records that Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215) wrote that the disciples Peter, John, and James (brother of John) chose James (brother of Jesus) as the bishop of Jerusalem, and “the Lord imparted the higher knowledge” to Peter, John, and James (brother of Jesus) [10]. Then, it appears after the execution of James (brother of John) [11], James (brother of Jesus) replaced him as a prominent leader. So, James replaced James (and I’m sure that didn’t confuse anyone).

We, again, see the respect given to James when a controversy in the early church arose about whether gentile (non-Jewish) Christians should be circumcised according to Old Testament commandments. The apostles and elders of the church gathered for a council, where James argued, along with Peter, that the gentiles shouldn’t be bound to Old Testament religious laws. James quotes Amos 9:11–12 to show that God has always had it in his plan to include non-Jews among his people. James recommends that the gentile Christians should avoid sexual immorality, anything related to idolatry (both commonalities in ancient Roman culture), and any food that would prevent them from sharing meals with Christian Jews due to religious dietary restrictions. 

The council clearly respected James’ wisdom because this is exactly what they wrote in the letter addressing this controversy [12]. 

James unquestionably went from a skeptic of his brother Jesus to becoming an important, respected, and prominent voice within the early church.

Hegesippus [13] wrote that everyone called him “James the Just” because, quite unastoundingly, “there were many Jameses.” (I feel James’ pain. There are way too many Steves.) Luckily, good old Hegesippus didn’t leave it there and goes on to tell us that because of James’ continuous prayer on his knees, it was rumored that he had knees like a camel [14]. The overall consensus is that James the Just was a man of outstanding character, holding a place of authority in the first church in Jerusalem for about 20 years before being killed in AD 62 because of his faith in his brother, Jesus of Nazareth.

Ancient Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37–100) tells us, 

 

“Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, [Ananus] brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death.” [15]

 

According to both Hegesippus and Josephus, when Festus, the Roman governor overseeing Judea, died, the adversaries of Jesus’ followers saw their opportunity to get rid of James before a new representative of Rome arrived. The gang leader of the troublemakers was a priest named Ananus (Jr.), son of high priest Ananus (who we find in the Gospels [16]). Ananus Jr. and the Sadducees decided to capitalize on the temporary lack of Roman order to carry out their own mob justice. 

According to both Hegesippus and Clement [17], the Jerusalem religious leaders muscled James up onto the parapet of the temple to straighten people out about believing in this false messiah named Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, James made a full confession of belief in Jesus, proclaiming that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father and will return on the clouds of heaven. As you can probably guess, Ananus Jr. and the Sadducees realized rather quickly they had made a mistake by giving James an audience, and they threw him down from the parapet. When the fall didn’t kill him, they stoned him. At this point, James began praying for his attackers, and some of his fellow Jews tried to stop the mob. But it was too late. A laundry man struck him in the head with a club used for beating out clothes, finishing off James the Just [18].

 

So, what changed? What made James go from someone who thought his brother should be mocked to someone who died because of his faith in his brother? What changed James the Jerk to James the Just? The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, which we looked at earlier, the earliest Christian creed recorded in the New Testament. Let’s look at it again:

 

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3–7)

 

According to this earliest of Christian confessions, James had seen his risen brother. And once someone encounters a risen dead person, it has quite an impact.

 

NOTES:

[1] 1 Corinthians 9:5.

[2]  Acts 12:1–2.

[3] Acts 12:17.

[4] Galatians 1:18–19. Cephas = Peter.

[5] Galatians 2:9. Cephas = Peter. Also see Acts 21:18.

[6] Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:13–16.

[7] Luke 10:1–20; Acts 1:21–23; John 6:60–68.

[8] Luke 8:1–3, 10:39; Mark 15:41.

[9] For example, Jesus takes Peter, John, and James (brother of John) with him onto the mountain to witness an important supernatural event called the Transfiguration. Mark 9:2–9; Matthew 17:1–3; Luke 9:28–36.

[10] Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007), 53.

[11] Acts 12:1–2.

[12] Acts 15:1–29.

[13] Who I imagine as a giant hippopotamus.

[14] Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007), 71.

[15] Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Writings, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1988), 276.

[16] Luke 3:2; John 18:13-14. Also spelled “Annas.”

[17] And passed on to us by Eusebius.

[18] Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007), 70–74.

Excerpt from CHAPTER 6: THE ABSURDITY OF A CRUCIFIED GOD

THE MOST WRETCHED OF DEATHS

 

If you were to ask a Christian to list the essentials of the Christian faith, the belief that Jesus was crucified and died would be at the top of that list. Not only is the crucifixion a pivotal part of all four Gospels, but the rest of the New Testament constantly refers back to it as the key event of the Christian faith. Paul writes, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Also, don’t forget the ancient hymn in Philippians: though Jesus “was in the form of God” and “born in the likeness of men,” he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–9).

Interestingly, what is possibly the first known visual depiction of Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t come from Christian hands. It’s a piece of ancient graffiti scratched into a wall in Rome. Historians call it the Alexamenos Graffito. It portrays a man looking up to another man, who is naked (his butt cheeks clearly illustrated) and hanging on a cross. The Greek reads, “Alexamenos worships God.” Though the crucified man has a human body, the graffiti artist gave him the head of a donkey, degrading both Alexamenos and the subject of his worship. So, it’s likely the earliest known artistic depiction of Jesus is actually a not-so-nice one.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When studying history, what is called “enemy attestation” is considered the strongest sort of evidence. Enemy attestation is when a source of information from one group confirms information about another group they consider enemies or opponents. The idea is that all historical writings have the bias of the authors, so a historical record from a certain group about themselves will likely have a positive spin. On the other hand, historical writings about those same people by their enemies will likely have a negative spin. So, enemy attestation is valuable when it confirms the same information the other side reported. For instance, regardless of one’s opinion of Donald Trump, even someone who hates his guts would confirm he was elected the 45th president of the United States. Such harmony is of high value to the historian.

The Alexamenos Graffito is a piece of enemy attestation that confirms that ancient Christians worshiped Jesus as deity. This is significant to Christians today because many skeptics explain away Christian beliefs about Jesus as legends that developed much later. The tired claim is that Jesus was deified some time after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in AD 312 and—as the theory goes—mixed pagan beliefs with Christian beliefs. This simple piece of scratched slander on a Roman wall from about AD 200 disproves that theory alone. But, also, it gives us a glimpse into what the run-of-the-mill Roman thought of those in this strange new religion that worships a crucified God-man. 

So, it’s worth taking some time to discuss the craziness of worshiping a crucified person, and I don’t just mean in the view of modern people. Yes, today plenty of people find Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection too incredible to believe, but to ancient Romans and Jews it would’ve been not just considered absurd, but scandalous. 

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. With the Romans, torture preceded crucifixion in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal or bone weaved into it to tear the flesh, even exposing muscle and bone. This type of beating—verberatio (sometimes translated as “scourging”)—was so severe some would die from this alone. If that happened, at least the condemned avoided the misery of the cross. 

When we examine all four Gospels, we find that Jesus received two beatings before his crucifixion. At first, Pilate gave Jesus a lighter flogging (fustigatio) but a flogging nonetheless. Pilate, then, tried to release him, but when the crowds pressured Pilate to crucify him, Jesus received the more severe beating (verberatio)—scourging (John 19:1–16; Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:13–16). After the scourging, the Romans made the beaten and bloody carry their own cross to the crucifixion site, as we see with Jesus (John 19:16–17). Because of the brutality of scourging, it’s no wonder the Roman soldiers had to recruit Simon of Cyrene, an uninvolved onlooker, to carry the cross for Jesus (Luke 23:26). Afterwards, the condemned was laid out naked—his flayed back against the coarse wood—and metal spikes were driven through his ankles (or feet) and wrists (or forearms) into the cross.

Despite common portrayals of Jesus on the cross with spikes through his hands, it’s more likely the spikes were through Jesus’ wrists. In English translations, we read that Jesus had wounds in his “hands” (Luke 24:39–40; John 20:20, 20:27), but no word for “wrists” in New Testament Greek existed, and the Greek word for hands (cheir) would include the wrists. For instance, in the Book of Acts, we’re told chains fell off of Peter’s cheir (Acts 12:7). The chains would undoubtedly have been around his wrists, not his actual hands. Spikes through the hands wouldn’t be able to hold the weight of a body on a cross; the hands would likely tear. So, all those artistic depictions of Jesus with wounds in his palms are probably inaccurate. 

Not to scramble your eggs even more, but based on the New Testament alone, the exact shape of the object Jesus was crucified on isn’t entirely certain either. The Greek word translated “cross” (stauros) could mean a pole, stake, or an actual cross made of two intersecting beams. Further, a cross could’ve been a capital “T,” a lowercase “t,” or it could’ve even been an X shape. The Romans crucified people on all sorts of things. Jehovah’s Witnesses are absolutely certain Jesus was attached to a “torture stake” with his hands stretched above his head, claiming that the Christian t-shaped cross symbol was stolen from paganism by (you guessed it) Emperor Constantine. I’ve heard other accusations that it was stolen from the ancient Egyptian ankh, a well-known cross-shaped symbol with an oval shape at the top. 

Such theories run into the same problems as other pagan copycat theories discussed in Chapter 3. As we’ve seen, historical evidence proves Jesus was, in fact, crucified and the Romans did, in fact, crucify people on t-shaped crosses. The Alexamenos Graffito shows Jesus on a t-shaped cross at least a hundred years before Constantine. We also know Pilate had a sign put on Jesus’ cross reading “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Above his head would be the most logical location to place this sign, so a lowercase “t” makes the most sense, rather than a uppercase “T” or “X”.

Furthermore, the New Testament does give us a clue that Jesus’ arms were outstretched. The disciple Thomas, upon hearing that Jesus had resurrected, states, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails… I will never believe” (John 20:25). You may have missed it (because I did until someone pointed it out), but when speaking about the wounds in Jesus’ hands, Thomas mentions “nails”—plural. If Jesus’ arms were stretched above his head on a torture stake, as Jehovah’s Witnesses insist, a single spike would’ve been driven through his overlapping hands; only one nail would’ve been needed.

As interesting as it is to explore these finer details, when all is said and done, the big fact remains unchanged: Jesus was crucified

Once the cross was placed upright, gravity would pull his bodyweight down on the spikes through his limbs. Then, the long wait of his slow death would begin. Under the heat of the sun, he died on display. The weight of his body made it hard to breathe. He would have to push up on the spikes piercing his feet and pull up on the spikes through his arms to raise his body enough to a position to do so. This is why the Romans would sometimes break the legs of the crucified to expedite death, as we see in John’s Gospel (John 19:31–33).

The cause of death could be a mix of many things: shock, loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure. Usually, the executed were left on the crosses as food for wild animals and as a horrifying warning to everyone else. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

Scholar John Dominic Crossan (who doesn’t hold to orthodox Christianity by any means) not only denies that Jesus rose from the dead, but even that he was buried in a tomb. He claims Jesus’ body would’ve been left on the cross to be eaten by buzzards, and then his remains would’ve been thrown into a shallow, public grave to be consumed further by dogs [2]. For the record, good historical evidence (outside of the New Testament) exists of exceptions. We know the Romans allowed concessions for the staunch religious beliefs of the Jews. Josephus testifies to this, writing, “[E]ven felons who have been crucified are taken down and buried before sunset” [3]. With this, in 1968, the remains of a crucifixion victim was found in a sealed family tomb outside of Jerusalem. Within the ossuary (bone box) of “Yehohanan, the son of Hahakol,” archaeologists found a heel bone with a four-and-a-half inch iron spike driven through it. 

 

The brutal and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of it was an appealing tool in keeping the masses in line. To give you an idea, Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “Our ancestors always suspected the temper of their slaves… But now that we have in our households [slaves from] nations with different customs to our own, with a foreign worship or none at all, it is only by terror you can hold in such a motley rabble” [4]. In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes, especially slaves and rebellious upstarts. The Romans held none of our modern ideas of human rights; any challenge to Roman authority wasn’t tolerated. 

Crucifixion was the ultimate shame and humiliation to both Romans and Jews—both strong group-identity and honor-shame cultures. As one scholar put it, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture” [5]. It had such a stigma, the words “crucifixion” and “cross” weren’t used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided those terms. We saw this last chapter with Tacitus calling it “the extreme penalty.” Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths” [6]. Telling someone to “go get crucified” was one of the crudest things you could say. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was a source of offense, disgrace, and dread to both Romans and Jews. Even within the Jewish scripture it says to be hung on a “tree” is to be cursed: 

 

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23)

 

As I was writing this, I struggled to think of an equivalent in modern times to help readers understand the horror and ugliness surrounding crucifixion in the ancient world. Lethal injection, the electric chair, and firing squad all fall short. Even beheadings and hangings—though terrible and often public—don’t carry the same inhumanity. Then, someone gave me an adequate comparison: lynching. 

In the darkest moments of U.S. history, we find human bodies hanging from “the lynching tree.” After the emancipation of people of African descent from slavery, racist lynchings became the terror of African Americans from the late 1800s all the way to the 1960s. The victims of this mob violence would be tortured and murdered, their corpses left for public display. Often, the severely beaten victim was hung up alive and left to die. 

The looming horror an African American person felt living under the threat of lynching in Mississippi in 1920 was similar to the dread the lower classes in the ancient Roman Empire felt about crucifixion. Though not a perfect comparison, the unabashed cruelty that surrounds lynching—the utter dehumanization; the publicness; the ability to inject terror into witnesses—all these make crucifixion and lynching close cousins with far more in common than any type of modern, government-sanctioned execution [7].

So, here’s the big idea: if the first Christians had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever reason), creating a story about a crucified God-man wouldn’t be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to ensure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would’ve been not just ridiculous, but offensive to the extreme. If Jewish and Roman families were scandalized by their own relatives being punished by crucifixion, why would anyone adamantly admit to the religious worship of a crucified criminal? Historian Tom Holland (who isn’t a Christian, by the way) writes, “That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque,” and the Jews would’ve found such a belief “stupefying,” “repellent,” and “[n]ot merely blasphemy, [but] madness” [8].

The apostle Paul commented on this in the New Testament: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… [W]e preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” [9].


 

CHRISTIANITY WASN’T DONE IN A CORNER (A.K.A. THE HISTORICALLY TESTABLE TRIANGLE)

 

The execution of Jesus is an essential Christian belief because it’s closely tied to another essential: the belief that Jesus resurrected. In fact, if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, Christianity is a sham. And that’s not just my opinion. The apostle Paul writes, 

 

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:14)

 

He goes on to say if Jesus hadn’t returned to life, the Christian faith is pointless and Christians are pitiful (1 Corinthians 15:17–19). So, there you have it from one of Jesus’ hand-picked apostles, the greatest missionary of the church, and writer of 13 “books” of the New Testament. In short, if the resurrection ain’t true, Christianity ain’t true.

In the Book of Acts, when Paul is testifying to the death and resurrection of Jesus before King Agrippa II, Agrippa’s sister Bernice of Cilicia, and Roman procurator Festus (whose campaign slogan was, “Festus for the Rest of Us!” [10]), Paul claims Agrippa has already heard of these things because they weren’t “done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). In other words, because these events happened in public, they haven’t gone unnoticed. People knew about them; people had witnessed them; and if Agrippa hadn’t heard of them, it would’ve been awfully gutsy of Paul to tell him that he had!

So, let’s take some time to consider the uniqueness of Christianity. Despite efforts to write off Jesus as just another ancient myth, we find the story of Jesus utterly unique to anything in the ancient world. With this, when we compare Christianity’s origin to the origins of other religions, we notice something else unique: Christianity’s publicness.

Most (perhaps even all) other religions started by someone having some sort of supernatural or spiritual experience. That person, then, spread what he or she learned. For example, Siddhartha Gautama was meditating under the Bodhi tree when he reached enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. Muhammad was in a cave near Mecca when he received the words of the Qur’an from an angelic messenger. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, was in the woods near Manchester, New York when the angel Moroni (whose name does not rhyme with “pepperoni”) gave him the Book of Mormon. But all these share another similarity as well. All were personal, private experiences. They all were alone. No witnesses were present.

On the other hand, Christianity’s origin was public. Jesus taught in public. Jesus performed miracles in public. Jesus died in public. After his execution, Jesus appeared alive in public. Because of this publicness, Christianity is founded on the eyewitness testimonies of multiple people. Because of this publicness, Christianity can be historically tested.

Think of it as a triangle with arrows going back and forth from each of the three corners. In one corner is (1) Real Time and Place; in the other, (2) Public; and in the third, (3) Eyewitnesses. All three of these are interconnected; each is dependent on the others. Let’s call this the Historically Testable Triangle. 

First, allow me to be Captain Obvious and point out that in order for something to be historically testable it must take place in (1) a real time and place. But, also, it must be (2) public enough to have (3) multiple witnesses for us to know that it really took place. This Testable Triangle shows us that Christianity’s origin is unusual when compared to other religions.

 

 

Muhammad was alone in a cave when he received the words of the Qur’an, so the Qur’an is based solely on the witness of one man. Similarly, Muslims are well-acquainted with the “Miraculous Night Journey” of Muhammad, where he flew from Mecca to Jerusalem on a mystical beast called a Buraq. Only one ambiguous passage in the Qur’an alludes to this event (Qur’an 17:1), and later Muslim writings, called hadith, expanded on it. The earliest, most trusted biographer of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq, records that a family member of Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s successor, said that one of Muhammad’s more prominent wives, A’isha, testified that Muhammad’s “body remained” [10]. It’s unclear from the Muslim sources if this “Miraculous Night Journey” literally happened or if it was a vision or dream [11]. Regardless, it was a private event only experienced by Muhammad with no witnesses. In fact, the Qur’an itself says Muhammad performed no miracles (Qur’an 10:20, 13:7, 17:90–93, 21:5, 29:48–52).

To boot, Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, was alone in a grove of trees when God the Father and Jesus Christ first appeared to him. He was also alone on the Hill Cumorah three years later when the angel Moroni (who I can’t help but imagine as an Italian stereotype behind a pizza counter) led him to the buried golden tablets of the Book of Mormon [13] written in “reformed Egyptian” [14]. Nevermind that “reformed Egyptian” is unfounded. Nevermind that Smith would shove his face into a hat containing a “seer stone” to translate it [15]. Nevermind that no one other than Smith has ever seen these golden tablets [16]. When all is said and done, Mormonism is based on the testimony of a lone person.

 

Now, compare all that to the earliest known Christian creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, the one that proclaims Jesus rose from the dead and names numerous eyewitnesses, as well as 500 unnamed witnesses, making sure to point out that most of them are still alive (just in case anyone wanted to talk to them). Compare that to Luke’s Gospel, which starts by speaking of eyewitnesses “from the beginning” who have written accounts about Jesus, and how Luke has taken it upon himself to write his own “orderly account” based on his own independent investigation (Luke 1:1–4). Compare that to when Peter proposes choosing a new “inner circle” disciple to replace the betraying (and dead) Judas, requiring the replacement to be someone who had witnessed the start of Jesus’ ministry all the way to Jesus’ ascension, so he could testify as a credible witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:15–22).

Compare that to the New Testament Gospels reporting at least six women, several who are named, as the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (Matthew 28:1–7; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–11; John 20:1–10) and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances to Mary Magdalene and other women (John 20:11–18; Matthew 28:8–10). Consider that in first-century Israel, women’s testimony wasn’t even accepted in a court of law. Josephus writes, “But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex” [17]. Likewise, the Talmud, a commentary on Jewish oral law, puts the testimony of women on the same level as slaves and gamblers (“dice-players” and “pigeon-racers,” to be exact) [18]. In fact, when the women share about encountering the risen Jesus, the male disciples shrug it off in disbelief—certainly not a detail invented to make Jesus’ disciples look good (Luke 24:10–11)! So, why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? In the second century, Greek philosopher Celsus even mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of a “half-frantic woman” [19].

Finally, consider that the New Testament isn’t written by one person, but eight. Other religions’ scriptures are often just the teachings of their founder, but the New Testament is unique in that it contains eyewitness testimony and the Historically Testable Triangle. The writers were deeply committed to reporting not just what Jesus said, but also what he did—which included predicting his resurrection from the grave, then doing it. 

The Gospel writers understood actions speak louder than words.

 

NOTES:

[1]  What Does the Bible Really Teach? (New York, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2014), 205.

[2]  Yet, even he writes, “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1995), 145.

[3]  Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Writings, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1988), 319.

[4]  Tacitus, Annals, 14:44, Complete Works of Tacitus, ed. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, (New York, NY: Random House, 1942).

[5]  Martin Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1977), 62.

[6]  Hengel, Crucifixion, 8.

[7]  I first heard this comparison made on the podcast Three Chords and the Truth: The Apologetics Podcast. They named James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree as the source for this idea.

[8]  Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (New York, NY: Basic, 2019), 6.

[9]  1 Corinthians 1:18–22.

[10]  I kid, I kid!

[11]  Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 183.

[12]  Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, 182.

[13]  Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996), 3–5.

[14]  The Book of Mormon, Mormon 9:32.

[15]  David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of The Book of Mormon, (Richmond, MO: 1887), 12, https://www.latterdaytruth.org/pdf/100023.pdf.  “Translation or Divination?,” Institute For Religious Research, July 6, 2011, https://mit.irr.org/translation-or-divination.

[16]  The Book of Mormon’s “Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “Testimony of Eight Witnesses” face all sorts of issues, including the original three all apostatizing from Mormonism; Mormon scripture stating there will be only three witnesses, no more (2 Nephi 27:1-13); and admissions by the witnesses that they didn’t see physical gold tablets but a vision of them. Anyhow, if someone had just presented the actual gold tablets to the public any questions about them would’ve been all cleared up. See Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism - Shadow or Reality? Fifth Edition, (Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987. Reformatted 2008), 50–63, 96B–96C.

[17]  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4:8:15, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-4.html.

[18] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, 1:8, Sefaria, https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Rosh_Hashanah.1.8?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&vhe=Torat_Emet_357&lang=bi.

[19] He was referring to Mary Magdalene. Origen, Against Celsus, 2:59, New Advent, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04162.htm.

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