”The Ten Commandments, one of the most negative documents ever written.” That’s the message— posted high over two city streets—that greeted the people of Melbourne, Australia, recently. It was the launch, said Francis Mcnab, of a new faith for the twenty-first century. Mcnab is the executive minister at St. Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne. He’s also a member of the Jesus Seminar, which takes a liberal approach to the Bible. He told a local newspaper that Abraham was a mere concoction, Moses was amass murderer, and Jesus was a Jewish peasant, not God. In fact, he said there is no Deity called God.
The Attack on God
God has become a popular target in recent times, with several top-selling books and documentaries attacking His existence. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion is probably the best-known book. It’s a strident dismissal of God and the biblical story. However, it contains nothing new except, perhaps, the venom in its attacks.
The origins of this kind of thinking came with the scientific age. The sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries brought a new view of the world, with science gradually replacing God. Ironically, the first scientists in this period were devout Christians who broke away from the dominant Greek thought that science was about deductive thinking rather than experimentation.
Over time, Christianity brought a realization that God is not only outside of nature but also the One who created a universe of order. Christian scientists began to experiment and to discover how God’s order worked, and in so doing, they developed the scientific method of investigation. Evidence that the method works can be found in any modern kitchen, office, or department store.
This revolution in the natural sciences, with their cause and effect relationships, also influenced people’s view of history and the Bible. After all, why should our understanding of history, including Bible history, be less scientific than our understanding of the natural world? Thus, it became easy to conclude that if cause and effect could do away with the need for miracles in the natural world, they could do the same with history and the Bible. They could explain away the supernatural as myth or legend or even as hysteria and hallucinations. This approach obviously cancels out Jesus’ virgin birth, the miracles in His ministry, and His resurrection.
By the end of the nineteenth century, with the advances in science and the popularity of the theory of evolution, several thinkers were agreeing with Friedrich Nietzsche who, in The Gay Science, had a madman run into the town square calling out, “God is dead! God is dead!” Nietzsche rejoiced in that “realization.” A few years later, the poet Thomas Hardy wrote a poem titled, “God’s Funeral,” where God is a “man-projected Figure. . . . One whom we can no longer keep alive.”
At about the same time, within Christianity itself, the search began for the “historical Jesus,” which usually meant a Jesus without miracles. The most recent incarnation of this attempt began in 1985 with a group of scholars who called themselves the “Jesus Seminar.” Its founder, Robert Funk, said, “The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is no personal God out there external to human beings. . . . Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God. . . . God does not interfere with the laws of nature.”
Finding the Real Jesus
On the other hand, there has been some recent, very careful work— though much less publicized—on the stories of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This has come about as a result of a growing concern about the direction the search for the historical Jesus by secular scholars has taken.
For instance, Richard Baukham notes “a rather neglected fact” that all history relies on someone’s testimony, and the four Gospels in the Bible contain the testimony of eyewitnesses. Testimony, he claims, is both a “unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality.”
He illustrates this by referring to the eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. He points out that the personal accounts of what happened in Hitler’s concentration camps are indispensable to our knowledge of what really happened. Eyewitness testimony is particularly critical for understanding important events of “such exceptionality.” In both cases—those of the Holocaust and the risen Christ—“The uniqueness [of the events] required witnesses as the only means by which the events could be adequately known.”
Importantly, Baukham recognizes that, even using the generally accepted dating of the Gospels, Mark was written well within the lifetime of many eyewitnesses. The other three were written at a time when these eyewitnesses were becoming scarce—at “the point in time when their witness would perish with them if it were not put in print.”
Seeing the Gospels as eyewitness accounts not only gives them added value but also warns us to take care not to allow some kind of twenty-first century rationalism and skepticism to control our reading of them. We need to concede that our naturalistic, scientific worldview doesn’t supply all the answers. There’s too much at stake to make that kind of mistake.
A Legendary Jesus?
Besides, if taking a truly critical approach means that we must rule out all claims of any supernatural occurrences in history, then “how are we to account for the swift rise of faith in Jesus as a miracle-working, resurrected, divine savior in a first century Jewish context?”
In asking this question, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd attack the approach that makes Jesus some kind of fictional legend. They argue against this “legendary” view of Jesus on several fronts.
First-century Jewish Palestine didn’t provide an environment that would give birth to such a legend. The claim that Jesus’ identity was bound up with that of Yahweh-God, that He should receive worship, and that He was the crucified and resurrected Messiah, was not easily accepted in the Jewish society of A.D. 30.
The dullness of the disciples, the unsavory crowd Jesus attracted, and some of the embarrassing aspects of the story are difficult to explain if the story is legendary.
That the story originated while Jesus’ mother, brothers, the original disciples, and Jesus’ opponents were alive renders the legend theory implausible, for they would have exposed the hoax.
The letters of Paul reveal that both he and his readers believed that Jesus had lived in the recent past and that they knew a good deal about His life and teachings.
While the information about Jesus in ancient secular writings is limited, what is there confirms the story about Jesus recorded in the Bible.
Recent studies of oral traditions give convincing evidence that the earliest stories about Jesus were transmitted in a historically reliable fashion—that the Gospel writers “wrote with historical intent and, by ancient standards, historical competency.”
It’s true that the Gospel writers are biased in their accounts, but no more so than other historians, ancient or modern, whose writings are typically considered to be trustworthy. The Gospels contain incidental details and casual information that is an evidence of historicity. And they stack up well with histories coming out of ancient, orally oriented cultures.
For those looking for the historical Jesus outside of the Gospels, James Dunn reckons, “If we are unsatisfied with the Jesus of the Synoptic tradition [found in the Gospels], then we will simply have to lump it; there is no other truly historical or historic Jesus.” He adds that often the quest to find the Jesus buried in the “Gospels and waiting to be exhumed and brandished aloft” reveals less about the real Jesus and more about the “agendas of the individual questers.”
Attacks against God and the Gospel story of Jesus may grab headlines and media attention, but there’s a quiet revolution behind the scenes that’s questioning the basis of these attacks. It will take time to see how this struggle will be played out.
In the meantime, the evidence is strong that the Gospel accounts of Jesus are very believable.