Two thousand years ago, a Galilean tradesman’s son wandered Palestine with a band of twelve followers. This man, called Yeshua by his contemporaries, had several different roles in his few short years on the road. He was a teacher, expounding on the Torah and rabbinical literature; he was a healer, restoring sight and relieving disease; he was an agitator, denouncing religious leaders. Can these characterizations adequately describe his nature, though? Was he something more than a controversial rabbi?
There is no archaeological record of this man. The only information we have about his life is documentary. As a student of history, I spend a lot of time with documentary evidence, trying to decipher a text’s implications and its author’s biases. Like the apostle Thomas, I value evidence, so in seeking to understand the ancient teacher we call Jesus, I am inclined to look to the documents that tell us his story.
Early secular sources confirm that Jesus existed. The oldest of these were written by two Romans: Josephus the chronicler and Tacitus the senator. Faithful Questions quotes a passage from the former’s Antiquities of the Jews (written in the tenth century CE) known as the Testimonium Flavianum, which describes Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Though beautiful, this passage is problematic: its wording is not consistent with other passages by its purported author, and was first referenced at length in the 300s. Most historians today consider it an interpolation by early Christians. The prevailing scholarly belief holds that it is authentic at its core, however, even if all the words were not originally written by Josephus. The central message of the Testimonium is that Jesus was called Christ by his followers, and he was crucified under Pilate. The Annals by Tacitus, broadly considered authentic, confirm these facts less than a century after Jesus died. These sources confirm that he existed, led a religious movement, and died, but do not tell us much about his activities or teachings.
To know what Jesus said about himself, we must look to religious documents, the Gospels, to understand Jesus. Each gospel is almost certainly the product of multiple authors codifying oral tradition and preexisting documents since lost. In all, Jesus makes a remarkable (and seemingly absurd or blasphemous) claim: that he is divine. In the gospel of latest origin, that of John, he causes an uproar by calling himself after one of God’s names: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (8:58) In the oldest, and therefore most reliable, record, Mark’s gospel, he is interrogated and asked whether he is the Messiah and the Son of God. He says that he is. (14:61-62) That all early Christians believed Jesus said this tells us that he truly believed himself to be.
As Christians, our faith is premised on the belief that Jesus was telling the truth about his divinity. Faithful Questions presents C.S. Lewis’s famous trilemma: that Jesus was either lunatic, liar, or Lord. Empirical evidence cannot tell us which of these best describes the man we call our master. The best evidence for Jesus’s godhood is the Resurrection, as only a being who created the world can logically be said to have broken the bands of death. Rational, secular explanations for the empty tomb run the gamut from cynical (his followers stole his body) to reminiscent of Voltaire (the Jerusalem earthquake opened a crevasse, into which his body fell). We cannot prove that Jesus rose from the dead, and we cannot satisfactorily explain the missing body without having been there.
Instead, we must rely on the testimony of the first Christians, who tell us that Jesus rose on the third day and met with his disciples. At least as early as 30 years after he died, his followers were writing of his visits to his band of fellow wanderers. They probably knew the people who had seen their risen lord. So strong was their belief that many of them died for it.
Because I love evidence, belief even in these early testaments is a wrestle, but with God’s help, I have developed faith that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Word made flesh. I cannot say that I know this with certainty, just as the Apostles were not certain of Christ’s resurrection until they saw Him. Like the disciples He met on the road to Emmaus, my heart has burned within me as I have come to recognize Jesus as Lord. The path to which He has called us is challenging, as His claim of godhood is the grandest ever made. As we come to know Him, though, He will soften our hearts and teach us His true nature.
Credo in unum Dominum Iesum Christum, Filium Dei Unigenitum….
Iterum venturus est cum gloria, iudicare vivos et mortuos; cuius regni non erit finis.