Who was Jesus? That may seem like a simple question, but that was literally where I had to start. All I knew about Jesus was that Christians said he was the son of God, he was crucified for our sins, and that he rose from the dead. I really had no idea what that meant, and I hadn’t really spent any time trying to find out. Sure, I had seen those “John 3:16” signs at enough sporting events over the years that I had actually looked it up. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life”. Here’s what I thought that meant – God is sitting around saying “wow, I really love the world. I think I’ll send my son there so they can kill him”. Since that made no sense to me, I just gave up on the whole thing.
Now, however, I found myself in a totally different situation. My investigation of Church teachings had left me wanting to believe in Christ, but I couldn’t just say “OK, I believe”. I’m way too hard headed for that. I was going to have to start doing some research to figure out who Jesus truly was, but where do you begin? I began with the premise that I didn’t want to use the Gospels as a source. After all, I was not a believer, so I didn’t consider the Gospels to be reliable. I wasn’t saying that they weren’t reliable, only that I didn’t know them to be reliable.
So, what sources do you use? A little google searching will show you that there are some ancient historians who mention Jesus (Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the younger), I also learned that the Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet. There is lots of reading you can do on the subject, but I think any serious study of the topic will leave you with the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived on the earth as a man. He had a large following, he preached, and he was crucified by the Romans. I wanted to find more information, but there just wasn’t any. Oh yeah, there were those four Gospels. Maybe I could look into those a bit? But, how would I know that they were reliable? What a stupid question that is!
I’m not sure if you noticed how flawed my logic was there, but here is what I was saying – I will consider the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny the younger to be reliable without having any idea who any of them were. But, I will not consider the Gospels reliable because…well….because they are the Gospels. That is just total nonsense, it is like saying I want to know everything there is to know about you, but I’m going to find it out solely by talking to your aunts and uncles. Sure, they are going to be able to give me some information about you, but the closer I get to you (mom, dad, siblings, yourself), the closer I am going to get to the real story.
In the case of the Gospels, I learned that almost all historians date the Gospels to have been written in the first century. Two are believed to have been written by actual apostles (Matthew and John), the other two were written by followers of the apostles (Mark and Luke). There is some debate over who actually wrote some of the Gospels, but what is not really in debate is that they were written by a person who was either an eye witness to the events, or by a person who was told the events by an eye witness. This fact alone should lend the Gospels some credence.
After taking all of this into account, I decided I would begin to look into the Gospels as a historical reference of the person of Jesus. I quickly came to realize that the Gospel writers used many names, places, and events to place Jesus into a specific time and place in history. They mention many rulers and governors of the time; Caesar Augustus, Herod Antipos, Pontius Pilate, and many others. A little research shows that they are historically accurate. There is some debate about the fine details, just as there is about much ancient history, but the characters and times are accurate.
At this point I have decided that the Gospels can be used as a reference to what Jesus said and did. I’m still a little leery about the stories of miracles, but I can find out who Jesus claimed to be, as well as who his followers thought he was. I will tackle that subject in my next post – who did Jesus claim to be?