Who was Jesus?: A Critique of the New Testament Record

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  1. Christ myth theory
  2. The Historicity of the New Testament - aluntreasun.ga

Within a few decades of his supposed lifetime, he is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians, as well as by dozens of Christian writings. Compare that with, for example, King Arthur, who supposedly lived around AD The major historical source for events of that time does not even mention Arthur, and he is first referred to or years after he is supposed to have lived.

Christ myth theory

The evidence for Jesus is not limited to later folklore, as are accounts of Arthur. The value of this evidence is that it is both early and detailed. These all appeared within the lifetimes of numerous eyewitnesses, and provide descriptions that comport with the culture and geography of first-century Palestine. It is also difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish saviour figure in a time and place — under the aegis of the Roman empire — where there was strong suspicion of Judaism.

As far as we know, the first author outside the church to mention Jesus is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote a history of Judaism around AD He has two references to Jesus. About 20 years after Josephus we have the Roman politicians Pliny and Tacitus, who held some of the highest offices of state at the beginning of the second century AD.

From Tacitus we learn that Jesus was executed while Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect in charge of Judaea AD and Tiberius was emperor AD — reports that fit with the timeframe of the gospels. Pliny contributes the information that, where he was governor in northern Turkey, Christians worshipped Christ as a god.

Strikingly, there was never any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Assume that no eyewitnesses controlled the tradition about Jesus prior to the time the Gospels were written. Assume further that the scattered early believing communities were so caught up with the living "presence" of the resurrected Christ speaking to them through prophetic utterances in the church assemblies that they lost almost all interest in the historical Jesus as he really was.

Then there would have been almost as many Christologies or portraits of Jesus and his significance as there were believing communities. Further, why would the churches tie themselves to four written sources if they could hear Christ "speak" afresh to them in their assemblies and if they felt free to make up sayings and stories about Jesus to meet the needs of their life setting? Eyewitness apostolic control over the tradition is the best explanation for the emergence of a consistent, written portrait of Jesus. Certain objections have been raised against the eyewitness nature of the New Testament record of Jesus, however.

Three of them are especially important.

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First, it has been argued that after the experience of the "Easter event" — a powerful, subjective feeling of the presence of the Christ after Jesus' death — the church lost interest in the biographical details of the historical Jesus who really lived. Rather, believers were interested in the ongoing experience of the Christ who was continually with them. In the early assemblies, prophets uttered sayings of the risen Christ as he spoke to his people through them. The church so identified the Christ who was speaking the post-Easter experiences of "the Christ" with the Jesus who had spoken the historical Jesus that they lost interest in the latter.

In fact, they freely made up episodes about Jesus which met their current needs. The Gospels are theological, kerygmatic, propagandistic works, not objective, historical biographies of Jesus. Thus, eyewitness testimony is irrelevant, given the nature of the Gospels. Several things can be said against this objection. For one thing, David Hill has shown that there is no evidence that there ever were prophets in the early church who uttered "sayings of Jesus" which were attributed to the pre-Easter historical Jesus.

First, a statement in Odes of Solomon says, "For I have risen and stand by them, and speak through their mouth.

NT Wright: resurrection of Jesus, reliability of the New Testament, and virtue ethics

Thus, it forms no basis for interpreting how the early church understood utterances in their assemblies. These sayings were understood as utterances of the Holy Spirit or on a few occasions, of the resurrected and glorified Christ and not of the historical Jesus. A second argument for the existence of these prophets points to utterances of Christ in the book of Revelation see Revelation — But Revelation was written later than the Gospels and differs from them in its literary genre-Revelation is apocalyptic literature, not theological history.

Further, utterances in Revelation are acknowledged as sayings of the risen Lord. They are not attributed to the pre-Easter Jesus. In point of fact, the New Testament writers distinguish their inspired words from those of the historical Jesus see 1 Corinthians There is also good evidence that the Gospels are biographical. Stanton has shown, the major examples of preaching in early Christianity come from Acts, and the sermons of Acts have, as an integral part, biographical details of Jesus' life.

Dodd has argued that the chronological order of Jesus' ministry as it is given in the sermons parallels nicely the order given in Mark. Furthermore, Paul himself showed interest in biographical details of Jesus' life Romans , 8; 2 Corinthians ; Philippians — These details form the basis of moral exhortation. It is antecedently incredible that converts to and inquirers about Christianity in its early years would not want to know a good bit about the person they loved. This is especially true in light of the embarrassment of the crucifixion. People would want to know what sort of person Jesus really was.

Why had he been crucified? Was he a troublemaker? The passion narratives of Jesus' last hours on earth were formed and circulated early in the missionary and teaching ministries of the church. These narratives would lead converts to expect more details about Jesus, and such details are what the Gospels attempt to provide. When the Gospels are compared with ancient biographies, they can be seen to be biographical as well.

But this does not mean biographers did not attend to historical facts. It is a false dichotomy to say something has to be either history or a document which promotes a message. The fact that the Gospels are kerygmatic does not rule out their historical dimension, especially when they emphasize the inseparability of the historical and the theological in understanding the incarnation. A second objection to the eyewitness nature of the New Testament record of Jesus argues that ancient people were less interested in facts than we are today and thus ancient historians were not concerned or able to distinguish fact from fiction.

So the presence or absence of eyewitnesses is not that important, since the value placed on factual reporting was not that great. This objection does not accurately represent the nature of historical writing in the ancient world. Herodotus emphasized the role of eyewitnesses and the evaluation of sources. Thucydides attempted to evaluate the accuracy of reports coming to him, and when he invented a speech, he did so to represent, as well as possible, the views of the speaker.

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  6. He did not feel free to invent narrative. Polybius held exacting standards. He advocated examining sources and evaluating eyewitnesses. Lucian stated that the historian's sole task is to tell the tale as it happened. Roman historians were strongly influenced by the Greeks. Cicero affirmed that the historian must tell nothing but the truth.

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    Livy was less critical and wrote to emphasize the greatness of Rome, but he did not feel free to invent stories. Tacitus attempted to test and evaluate his sources and did not wish to deliberately distort his information. I will address the nature of Jewish oral tradition shortly. Suffice it to say here that it was concerned with accuracy. Furthermore, Josephus stated his commitment to truth and accuracy, and he tried to correct his sources when they were wrong.

    Ancient historians were not as critical or precise as their modern counterparts. But the question "did it really happen?

    The Historicity of the New Testament - aluntreasun.ga

    The New Testament writers show a concern to preserve historical facts accurately Luke —4; John ; Hebrews —4; 2 Peter This does not prove they wrote history, but it clearly shows that they understood the difference between fact and fiction and that they were interested in the former. A third objection against the eyewitness nature of the New Testament record of Jesus comes from D. But Nineham's objection fails. There is no reason to assume that Jesus did not teach in consistent forms which could be easily memorized. Further, when the church orally circulated its information about Jesus this material may have been put into forms that could be memorized and passed on easily.

    But this does not mean believers fabricated the stories. It is a false move from the form of a narrative to its historical accuracy. Over the last several years, trends in New Testament studies have been toward understanding the Gospels as Jewish documents with a Jewish influence shaping them. The Hellenistic influence on the genre and content of the Gospels has been seen as less significant.

    The classical form- and redaction-critical approach to the formation of the Gospels is roughly this. In light of their experience of the "risen Christ" and their expectation of his immediate return, persons in the early church were not interested in the historical Jesus per se, but created stories about Jesus to meet their current needs. These stories were then attributed to the pre-Easter Jesus. Thus, during the time before the Gospels were written, the Jesus tradition the material about Jesus was altered and expanded freely into various forms of material which were finally put into writing.

    The process of selection and shaping was marked heavily by the interests and theology of the Gospel writers themselves.


    In contrast, the Uppsala school holds that the Jesus tradition was shaped consciously by the same principles that governed the shaping of Jewish oral tradition in general. According to this view, Jesus was an authoritative teacher or rabbi who trained his disciples to be his apprentices. In keeping with the practices of their orally oriented culture, they were capable of accurately memorizing massive amounts of material.

    The disciples of Jesus took great care to memorize his teachings and deeds they may have written down some of the material as well , and saw their responsibility as guardians of the tradition. Their role was to pass on the tradition faithfully and substantially unaltered. The Gospels, therefore, are in large measure the written results of a process of handling the tradition which preserved its accuracy.

    Several arguments can be advanced to support this view. For one thing, Jesus' relation to his disciples was similar to that of Jewish rabbis to their pupils. Third, this view explains the role of an apostle and his authority as it is presented in the New Testament, namely, as an authoritative, eyewitness guardian of the UP, tradition. Fourth, it explains the way the New Testament writers themselves refer to their own view of the way they handled the tradition about Jesus see 1 Corinthians —8; Galatians —10; Colossians ; 1 Thessalonians When they refer to the way they handled the material about Jesus, they say that they "delivered over" to others exactly what they "received" These terms are the ones used in Jewish oral tradition to describe the way such tradition was passed on.

    It seems, then, that the early disciples of Jesus wrote down some of Jesus' sayings and deeds, memorized a great deal of his teaching they were capable of this in that culture , and passed it on with accuracy. Two major objections have been raised against the Uppsala view. This objection is far too radical in its skepticism. Rabbinic practices in were surely influenced by earlier practices.