Jesus Christ—A Historical Personage
MANY are the books written questioning the authenticity and genuineness of the things recorded in the Bible. A special target of doubting critics is the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. What are we to believe? Did Jesus actually live? Is the picture of him as presented in the Gospels authentic?
Many critics are of much the same opinion as that expressed by the late Albert Schweitzer. According to him, the kind of Jesus presented in the Gospels, one who claimed to be the Messiah, preached the kingdom of God and died to give his work its final consecration, is “a literary fiction of the earliest Evangelists.” Schweitzer would have us believe that Jesus was a religious fanatic preaching the imminent destruction of the universe and that there is no knowing him as a “concrete historical personality.” Reaching such a conclusion, Schweitzer quit his career as clergyman and professor of theology, went back to school, studied medicine and became a physician.
The skepticism of some critics includes denying that such a person as Jesus ever existed. So what evidence is there that Jesus did actually live?
To begin with, there is the testimony of the early Talmudical writings. The noted Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner, after thoroughly investigating their testimony, reports that the “early Talmudical accounts” of Jesus confirm ‘both the existence and the general character of Jesus.’—Jesus of Nazareth, p. 20.
There are also two references to Jesus in the works of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. One of these is often questioned because it makes Josephus sound like a Christian. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chap. III, par. 3) But, as Klausner and other scholars point out, it is unreasonable to conclude that Josephus would have made no reference to Jesus’ ministry when he dealt at length with that of John the Baptist. Besides, in a later reference, Josephus tells that “the sanhedri[n] of judges [had] brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chap. IX, par. 1) Rightly, these scholars hold that this quotation intimates that something had been previously said about Jesus, otherwise why identify an unknown James as being his brother? They therefore hold that Josephus did tell about Jesus’ ministry but that some other, later hand embellished the account.
TESTIMONY OF ROMAN HISTORIANS
It is not to be expected that Roman historians would have much to say about an apparently small religious movement in faraway Palestine. At best we would expect to find scanty references, and such is the case. Thus, that foremost Roman historian, Tacitus, tells of Nero fastening the blame for the burning of Rome upon those “called Christians by the populace. Cristus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”—The Complete Works of Tacitus, translated by A. Church and W. Brodribb, p. 380.
A number of other Roman Writers, including Pliny the Younger, Seneca and Juvenal also make references to Christ’s followers.
Rightly, then, The Encyclopædia Britannica states regarding the testimony of early Jewish and pagan writers: “These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.”—1974 Edition, Vol. 10, p. 145.
AN UNFORGETTABLE RECORD
Not only is the historicity of Jesus established by such “independent” accounts, but the Gospel records by their very contents do the same. How so? John Stuart Mill, noted nineteenth-century English economist and philosopher, observed: “Who among His followers, or among their proselytes, was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the Gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee.” Making the same point is the American Theodore Parker: “Shall we be told such a man never lived, the whole story is a lie? Suppose that Plato and Newton never lived. But who did their works, and thought their thoughts? It takes a Newton to forge a Newton. What man could have fabricated a Jesus? None but a Jesus.”
And English philosopher David Hartley makes a related and telling point: “If we compare the transcendent greatness of this character [Jesus] with the indirect manner in which it was delivered, . . . it will appear impossible that they should have forged it,—that they should not have had a real original before them . . . How could mean and illiterate persons excel the greatest geniuses, ancient and modern, in drawing a character? How came they to draw it in an indirect manner? This is, indeed a strong evidence of genuineness and truth.”
HIS UNIQUE PERSONALITY
Even stronger evidence as to the historicity of Jesus Christ is the fact that his influence does not depend upon his physical presence on earth. While the influence of such mighty rulers as Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar is no more, the impact that Jesus Christ made on history remains. Millions today still follow his teachings.
Though a powerful man in his day, Napoleon was forced to recognize the uniqueness of Jesus’ influence as a person. He noted: “An extraordinary power of influencing and commanding men has been given to Alexander, Charlemagne and myself. But with us the presence has been necessary. . . . Whereas Jesus Christ has influenced and commanded His subjects without His visible bodily presence for eighteen hundred years.” And again: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires, but upon what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ alone founded his kingdom upon love.”
The noted eighteenth-century French philosopher Rousseau wrote the following about Jesus: “What sublimity in his maxims. What profound wisdom in his discourses! What presence of mind, what subtlety, what fitness, in his replies! How great the command over his passions! Where is the man, where the philosopher, who could so live and so die, without weakness, and without ostentation?”
Coming to modern times, Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu ‘father’ of the nation of India, once stated to Lord Irwin, former viceroy of India: “When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems, not only of our countries but those of the whole world.” Bearing similar testimony to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the veteran American psychiatrist J. T. Fisher wrote, toward the end of his very successful career, that the Sermon on the Mount far excelled the best that all the world’s philosophers, psychologists and poets had to offer.
WHAT ABOUT JESUS’ MIRACLES?
Perhaps more than any other one aspect of the Gospels that has proved a stumbling stone to many is their record of miracles. If the miracles were presented as ordinary happenings, there might be a basis for people to object. But this is not the case. The Gospels present the miracles as extraordinary occurrences confirming that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. We read: “Jesus performed many other signs also before the disciples, which are not written down in this scroll. But these have been written down that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God.” (John 20:30, 31) Surely it would not have been enough for Jesus simply to claim that he was the Son of God. He had to be able to prove that this was so. And what better way was there to do this than by performing miracles?
But what about the argument that miracles are contrary to the laws of nature? On this point, Victor Hess, discoverer of cosmic rays, once stated: “It is sometimes said that the ‘necessity’ of the ‘laws’ of nature is incompatible with . . . miracles. This is not so. . . . Many of our physical laws are, in fact, merely statistical statements. They hold for the average of a great number of cases. They have no meaning for an individual case. . . . Must a scientist doubt the reality of miracles? As a scientist I answer emphatically: No. I can see no reason at all why Almighty God, Who created us and all things around us, should not suspend or change—if He finds it wise to do so—the natural, average course of events.”—Faith of Great Scientists, edited by W. Howey, p. 10.
Also supporting the genuineness of Jesus’ miracles is the effect they had on those that witnessed them. As Dr. W. Paley shows, they “passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and . . . they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.”—The Works of William Paley, p. 300.
We cannot escape it. The foregoing evidence allows us as objective, reasoning persons to come to but one conclusion. And that is, not only that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived, but that the record of his life as portrayed in the Scriptures does present us with the historical Jesus.