Who is Jesus?

A wildlife photographer was taking a very dramatic shot of some gulls flying beneath a high deserted cliff. He leant a little further, and fell. He grabbed a small shrub about 15 feet below the top, but it was frail and it was clear it would not last. He cried out but there was no-one about. In desperation he prayed: 'Is there anyone there? Is there anyone there?'

And then he heard a voice: 'Yes, I am here.'

'Can you save me?'

'Yes, I shall send my angels to carry you back to safety, but first you have to show your faith, by letting go of that shrub.'

The photographer looked at the shrub, at the cliff above and at the rocks below.

'Is there anyone else there?'

Christians believe that a man who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago reveals and shows us the truth about God. His name is Jesus. Who is Jesus?
Historical Existence Evidence for NT Is the Bible Fiction? His own words
Evidence And So Star Course Sources

1 Historical Existence

Now whether or not you accept that he is the Son of God, that he existed there is no doubt. Most of the evidence about Jesus' life comes from the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Some of these undoubtedly date from only a few years after the events they describe. Paul, in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, appeals to the fact that hundreds of eyewitnesses to Jesus are still alive. (1 Corinthians 15:6). The greatest of the eyewitnesses who wrote an extended account, St John, writes about Jesus in this way, as the word of life:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our own hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it. (1 John 1:1-2).

But maybe they were all making it up? After all, the writers of the New Testament were all Christians. This is a slightly odd objection: most people who write about the electron are physicists, but this does not disqualify their testimony. Fortunately, there are also enough references in early Jewish and Roman sources to dispel any historical doubt about Jesus' existence. The main quotes and references are from Tacitus, Suetonius Pliny, Josephus (pictured right) and there is some relevant material in the Talmud.

Of course these are not first-hand accounts, but they are accounts derived largely from non-Christian sources, sources which were moreover trying to suppress this cult. If Jesus had never existed, Jewish and Roman sources would have made that clear. Instead the Talmud records 'It is taught: On Passover Eve they hanged Yeshu ... because he has practised magic and led Israel astray'  There is not a single example in the whole of ancient literature of anyone trying to deny that Jesus was a real person.
Historical Existence Evidence for NT Is the Bible Fiction? His own words
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2 Evidence for the New Testament

So OK, there was someone called Jesus who was some kind of a religious teacher in Palestine all those years ago. Maybe King Arthur and Merlin and Robin Hood existed as well. Surely all that stuff in the Bible is later legends, that were built up over the Centuries, and have probably been distorted by scribes and storytellers?

Let's take this in two stages. Firstly, we do know that the books in the New Testament we have now are essentially identical to those that were originally written. The New Testament is by far the best attested book in the whole of ancient literature, with thousands of written sources still in existence, some going back to at least the early part of the 2nd century. By comparing all these texts, scholars have a very clear idea of what the original writers must have written. It should be stressed that copying in the ancient world was a very precise art. When the {ancient writings that we know as the} Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered they contained books of the Old Testament that were about 700 years older than the earliest surviving manuscripts, and yet there was essentially no change in the text.
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3 Is the Bible fictional?

So there is clear evidence that Jesus existed and that the New Testament we have today is essentially that which was written originally.

Some people will say - well it may be old, but it's fiction. After all, there are famous stories from Greece and Rome like the wooden horse of Troy which may be authentic works, based to some extent on real events, but no-one would seriously seek to base their life on them.

That is precisely the point. These works are clearly legend and presented as such. They are stirring poems - the New Testament is largely prose. Whatever the authors were trying to do, they were not writing novels. The authors of the New Testament are clear that they are writing about real events and a real person. And we know that within a few years of the events described, there were thousands of people who were ready to die for their faith in Jesus, on the basis of these facts. St Paul (who wrote half the books of the New Testament) was put to death for his faith, as were St Peter and St James. They could have escaped death by renouncing their faith. Could any novelist die for the truth of their novel?

Many passages in the Gospels are self-evidently eye-witness accounts. Consider for a moment this amazing story from John 8. This is actually one of the least well-attested parts of the Gospel as far as the manuscripts go. {But I would cheerfully stake my life that this is an eye-witness account.} Jesus is teaching in the Temple:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, 'Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?' They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.' And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again".
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4 What did he say about himself?

So we know that Jesus existed. But who is he? Clearly, he was one of the most influential religious teachers ever: by any objective standard he has had more influence on history than any other man or woman. He never wrote a book, he never led an army, he never attained any high position in society, his followers almost all forsook him when he died.

4.1 Teaching expressly about himself

Jesus' first recorded words in St Mark's gospel (Mark 1:15) are:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Good News.

What is he talking about?

He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. he opened the book and found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed;
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them: "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21).

Jesus is saying: I am The Anointed One: in Hebrew, The Messiah, (in Greek, the Christ) The Holy One of God (Luke 4:34). Jesus says that the Good News is that God has decisively broken into history and it is me. There was tremendous expectation that a Messiah would come: a great leader sent by God who would deliver Israel from the cruel occupation of the Romans. But Jesus confounds all expectations. He so enrages the congregation, telling them that salvation is available to everybody, not just to the Jews, that they try to kill him! (Luke 4:22-30)

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying: "I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

There is a hunger for understanding deep within the human mind. We sense, at a very deep level, that the Universe is not a capricious and arbitrary place, at the mercy of 'gods' and 'spirits', but that it contains elements which we are capable of understanding. Western empirical science historically was developed almost entirely by Christians and Jews who believed that 'God created man in his own image'(Genesis 1:27) and that therefore human understanding, however imperfect, was capable of grasping the fundamental principles of the universe. To an atheist the Universe is fundamentally meaningless, and we are the product of a set of coincidences. In the light of Jesus, the universe fundamentally makes sense.

The Pharisees said to him, "you are bearing witness about yourself, your testimony is not true." Jesus answered, "Even if I do bear witness to myself, my testimony is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going." (John 8:13-14).

The question we have to face, is that wherever we look in the authentic records about Jesus, whether it is Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the other books of the New Testament, Josephus or even the Talmud, he makes extraordinary claims about himself.

4.2 Indirect claims

He goes around forgiving people's sins (Mark 2:5). - that's a word we're going to come back to in a later session - but lets listen to this:

Now some of the Scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak thus, it is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And immediately, Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them ... the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins. (Mark 2:6 - 10).

CS Lewis who wrote the Narnia stories (by the way he decided to become a Christian on the top of a bus!) says in Mere Christianity:

One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and 1 forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself un-robbed and un-trodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men's toes and stealing other men's money? Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned.

There are many other references, such as (Matthew 25:31-45).

4.3 Direct claims

[When Jesus was tried the Jewish] High Priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?' And Jesus said, 'I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.' And the High Priest tore his garments, and said. 'Why do we still need witnesses?' You have heard the blasphemy. What is your decision?' And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64).

When Jesus was teaching in the Temple at Jerusalem:

the Jewish leaders gathered round Jesus and said to him: 'how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.' Jesus answered them, 'I told you and you do not believe. ... My Father is greater than all ... I and the Father are One.' [They] took up stones again to stone him.

Jesus answered them, 'I have shown you many good works from the Father, for which of these do you stone me?' [They replied] 'It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God'. Jesus answered them, '... do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming' because I said "I am the Son of God"? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.' (John 11:24-38)

Jesus is clearly claiming to be more that 'just' a great moral teacher.

And even people who try to disregard the evidence of what Jesus actually said and did, and claim that he was 'only' a great moral teacher, are faced with this problem: why then was he put to death by the authorities? No-one would execute a wandering rabbi for uttering moral platitudes.

There was confusion and controversy about who Jesus was. Even his closest friends wondered. But Jesus asks the question, who do you say that I am?

Simon Peter answered, "you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Then Jesus said, Simon, son of Jonah, you are favoured indeed! You did not learn that from any human being; it was revealed to you by my heavenly Father. (Matthew 15:15-16)

So the earliest Christian Creed became simply Jesus is Lord.
Historical Existence Evidence for NT Is the Bible Fiction? His own words
And So Top Star Course Sources


5 What evidence is there to support what he said?

Well is he? We'll be exploring this in the coming chapters. But let's start with these four ideas:

5.1 His Teaching

They tried to trick Jesus by asking what the priorities are:

One of them tried to catch him out with this question: "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Everything in the law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:35-40)

One could argue that this idea has been the foundation of all that is good in our society for the last 2,000 years. But the truly extraordinary thing about Jesus is not only that he gave this amazing teaching, but that he lived up to it. The News of the World would be out of business if they were dependent on Jesus of Nazareth.

And not only did Jesus live out his teaching, practising what he preached, he expressed it so vividly. Even people who don't go to Church have know the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

A Lawyer stood up and put him to the test, saying, 'Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'

[Jesus] said to him, what is written in the Law? How do you read?' And he answered, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself'[Deuteronomy 6:5 & Leviticus 19:18. Jesus had given this answer to this question on other occasions (Matthew 22:36)]. And he said to him, 'You have answered right, do this and you will live.'

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbour?'

Jesus replied, 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side [Quite right - if he touched a corpse he could not enter the Temple (Leviticus 22:4-7) The love of God comes before merely human obligations.]. So likewise a Levite [that's a sort of Churchwarden type], when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan [Those people, he wouldn't know the right thing to do if it bit him. He's not going to worship in the Temple. He wouldn't stop because the robbers would probably get him if he did. Perhaps they will. Serve him right for not knowing the law.], as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he -- had compassion, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to the inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii [that's about £100] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying "Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay when I come back". Which of these three do you think, proved neighbour to the one who fell among robbers?' [Rats! I can't be seen to say we should love Samaritans, they are heretics and our enemies.]

He said, 'The -- one who showed mercy on him.'

And Jesus said to him -- go and do likewise. [Me, act like a Samaritan! ] (Lk10:25-37).

Go and do likewise. There is the challenge. That was how Jesus lived.

5.2 His Character

And it's this character of Jesus that has impressed many millions throughout the centuries, even those who would not call themselves Christians. For example, Albert Einstein wrote:

"No man can deny that Jesus existed, or that his sayings are beautiful. No man can read the gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the figure of the Nazarene."

Jesus was a man who was relentless in his loving, unswerving in his convictions, unafraid to challenge evil and hypocrisy, let gentle in his dealings with people, especially children. Humorous., yet never at the expense of others, indeed so good as to be God-ly.

5.3 His works

Of course, it's not just his words, its his actions. And there can be no escape from the claim in the New Testament that Jesus performed miraculous signs. He not only healed the broken-hearted, but some with physical wounds; he made people see the truth about God, but he also made some of the physically blind see. People paralysed with fear leap with joy in their hearts and some of the physically paralysed are healed too. But paradoxically, Jesus rarely uses these signs and wonders to prove his divinity, he doesn't  present himself primarily as a miracle worker. Rather they are signs of Gods presence in the world, and a signs of what unity with God can ultimately bring - healing. Jesus always acted out of the life and power of God, who created a world which is more mysterious than we sometimes realise.

Of course the miracle is the resurrection.

5.4 His fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy

The Gospels are peppered with quotes from the Old Testament. For those of us who are not Jews, it is hard to get into this. But Jesus was seen to be the one who in his life and actions fulfilled the hope of the Jewish people, as the One who was recognised by his followers as the promised Messiah, he was seen as fulfilling the words of Isaiah about the suffering servant of God. (Isaiah 53)

{He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous. (Isaiah 53:3-11)}


6 And so..

There is a lot to take in here. Maybe we've raised as many questions as we have answered. What about Jesus' death? Surely, God cannot die. What about the resurrection? If this is true, then everything else fits into place. Let's pause here for discussion, and look at Jesus' death and his resurrection in the next two talks. We are, if you will, the jury in a two-week trial. Let's discuss the evidence so far in our small groups: there will be much more over the next fortnight.
Historical Existence Evidence for NT Is the Bible Fiction? His own words
Evidence Top Star Course Sources



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