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 . 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” . 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 ), 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 . 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?” 
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” . 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 . (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 . 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” . 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!  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 , a Greek philosopher , an armed revolutionary , and even a traveling Buddhist monk . 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.
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  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.
To start, we can’t discuss Jesus without referring to the Christian Bible. So, in Part I, 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? We’ll even look at other ancient writings—even non-Christian writings—to see what they tell us about Jesus.
In Part II, we take a chapter to get to know Jesus, the human—his birth, early life, and family. What sort of family was he born into? Did Jesus’ family think of him in the same way Christians do today? Then, we’ll talk about Jesus the God. Did Jesus’ first followers really believe he was God? Why would they believe such an outrageous thing? Did Jesus believe he was God? On top of all that, how could someone possibly function as both a limited human and limitless divine being? And if Jesus is the one and only God, why is he constantly talking to this other divine being—“the Father”?
Finally, in Part III, before bringing everything together, we’ll take a look at what Jesus taught about spirituality, life, and even politics.
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.
 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).
 James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014).
 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.
 Matthew 16:13–20; Mark 8:27–30; Luke 9:18–20.
 Emphasis mine.
 Qur’an 4:171; Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Hadith 377.
 Deepak Chopra, “Deepak Chopra on ‘The Third Jesus,’” Youtube, April 14, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CZymnE6zCU.
 Do you think they had bunk beds?
 Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism - Shadow or Reality? Fifth Edition, (Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987. Reformatted 2008), 260–261.
 Revelation 19–21.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).
 “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/
 Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, (New York, NY: Random House, 2014).
 “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
 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” . 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 . 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?
Jesus answered, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Jesus said, I am the Way and the Truth and the Light.
Jesus answered, I am the Way and Truth and Life.
I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, Jesus answered.
Jesus answered, I am the Truth and the Light.
Highlighting the differences between each sentence will help us:
Jesus answered, I am the Way, [Missing: and] the Truth and the Life.
Jesus said, I am the Way and the Truth and the Light.
Jesus answered, I am the Way and [Missing: the] Truth and [Missing: the] Life.
I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, Jesus answered. [Word order changed]
Jesus answered, I am [Missing: the Way and] the Truth and the Light.
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.)
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” .
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.” 
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.
 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?"
 Don’t believe me? Google it!
 N. T. Wright, “Foreword,” The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce, 6th ed., (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1981), x.
 John 14:6.