“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.'” (Luke 2:34-35)
People tend to focus on the “Christmas story”, but this verse that follows the account of the birth of Jesus is significant, if not subtle, in its ramifications.
Simeon was a temple priest who entertained the rituals performed by Mary after Jesus was born. Luke says that it was revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that Simeon would not die before he had seen the Messiah.
Devout Jews of the time were expecting a Messiah (“Christ” in Greek). Keep in mind that more than 300 years had passed since the last of the Old Testament prophets who foretold the Messiah. Simeon knew this baby was the One because the Holy Spirit had spoken to him!
Following an article I read recently, the author had a back and forth discussion with a reader about whether Jesus actually existed. The skeptic questioned the reliability of the Bible and did not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure. Among other things, he questioned the lack of reference in First Century historical accounts sources external to the Bible of Jesus and the miracles that the Bible describes. The reader argued: if so many miraculous things really happened, wouldn’t everyone have heard about them and made mention of them in historical accounts?
Never mind that social media was late to arrive in First Century Galilee and CNN had not yet been picked up Jerusalem at that time. I wonder, though, even if social media and CNN existed, would you believe accounts of miracles if they were reported in India? Mexico? Montana? Would you have even give it a second thought if some fishermen, homeless people, or prostitutes claimed to be healed?
Of course, this question begs another question: Is the Bible an historical account? The “books” of the New Testament are written like historical accounts, especially the Gospels and the Book of Acts. The epistles (letters) also have historical significance.
Simeon is recorded as saying to Mary that the Christ child was “destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel”. Isn’t that what happened with Jesus, who only lived a short 30 some years? He caused quite a stir, and the stir even continues today, almost two millennia later.
Many continue to speak against Jesus today, just as Simeon said they would, which is an odd thing if Jesus was never an historical figure. The thoughts of many hearts are revealed if this Jesus really was God who came in the flesh to walk among us. He is the continental divide between those who are open to God and those who deny him.
But, what is the evidence that Jesus was an historical figure who claimed to be God in the flesh?
The Epistles are written as letters to various groups of people. We read Civil War letters to gain insight into the Civil War and the times. The Epistles were not written with the intention of preserving historical accounts, necessarily, but they have have historical signficance.
Since they were written with the ostensible purpose of communicating to specific people about contemporaneous matters of concern at that time. They convey no conscious intention to be historical. This lack of conscious, historical intent makes them highly credible as historical records, just the like the Civil War letters.
Amazingly, some 25,000 copies of various portions of the New Testament (many of them complete) have been found and are preserved today when considering all languages in which New Testament text has been found. (Wikipedia) Homer’s Iliad is next in line for the prize for most preserved ancient texts with 643 ancient texts.
Some people today claim that the text has been changed so often and so pervasively since he beginning, that we can’t trust it. What of all the variations? Has the New Testament not been changed in all the time that has passed?
Of the seven major Greek editions of the New Testament, almost sixty three percent (62.9%) of the verses are identical, without variation. Of the variations, most of them are just spelling differences. The number of actual variants that affect meaning make up only about ten percent (10%) of the text, and none of those variations affect doctrine (truthnet.org), but that is a topic for another day.
The Bible is an ancient text that historians do consider for its historical value, including many skeptics, even if some modern skeptics do not. Jesus is referenced outside the Bible as well. According to the neutral sources:
“There are … secular references to Jesus, although they are few and quite late. Almost all historical critics agree, however, that a historical figure named Jesus taught throughout the Galilean countryside c. 30 CE, was believed by his followers to have performed supernatural acts, and was sentenced to death by the Romans, possibly for insurrection.” (Wikipedia)
According to the Biblical Archaeology Review article, Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence beyond the Bible, we have solid, reliable historical texts that reference Jesus of Nazareth who lived, and died and was crucified. Very few modern scholars who are peer-reviewed and respected in their fields claim that Jesus from Nazareth in the First Century who was killed on a Roman cross and had devout followers did not actually exist.
Though the vast majority of historians and scholars do not seriously doubt the existence of Jesus as a real, historical person, these non-biblical accounts do not confirm the miracles or the resurrection of Jesus except by reference to what His followers believed.
Many people discount the Bible as an historical writing or reject it altogether because of the strong religious content and accounts of miracles. Those factors don’t mean that Jesus was not an actual, historical figure. Either way, the question is a good one: if Jesus was such a big deal, why is He not referenced in more historical documents?
Heading back to where this article started, it occurs to me that the Roman Empire at the time of Christ was large. It covered most of Europe and Asia Minor, areas of the Middle East and Northern Africa around the Mediterranean. (See Map) Judea in the Middle East was a small, insignificant area on the fringe of the Roman Empire.
Histories at the time were written in Rome, not in the far flung provinces where most people were illiterate. There are some historical accounts (written in Rome) that mention Jesus as noted above, but not many.
Though followers of Christ appeared in Rome within a generation of Jesus’s death, they were relatively few in number. They were not influential people. Followers of the Way, as it was once known, were not apt to be involved in the culture, politics or society of the time.
The early followers of Jesus were devoted to learning and following the teachings of Jesus, expecting his quick return and spreading the word at a grass roots level. These people were not concerned about preserving history; they were expecting the return of Christ and the future He would bring.
Most of the evidence of Jesus that historians might encounter from these early Christians was written by them to fellow believers. The apostles and witnesses of Jesus were scattered from Jerusalem as a result of persecution from Jews who tried to purge their synagogues of the upstart influence of Jesus, and they wrote extensively to each other. According to New Testament texts, Paul was among those Jewish leaders who tried to quash the early Christian movement (until he had his own conversion experience).
The issues with Jesus followers were uniquely Jewish concerns that would draw little attention from Roman rulers of the time except as the local Jewish struggle with these followers affected their rule. The crucifixion incident itself, which is reported in non-biblical histories, and the example of Paul who claimed his Roman citizenship when being tried by the Jews (Acts 25:1-12), are examples.
Further, we understand from the Book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles that Paul became the main advocate of early Christianity to the non-Jewish world in the First Century. The other apostles and eye witnesses of Jesus focused on the Jewish world, not the Gentile world, of which Rome was a part.
It is not terribly surprising, then, that accounts of Jesus were not a focus of Roman historians at the time. A departure from traditional Jewish theology would be of little concern to Romans and the Roman Empire.
It’s also not surprising that one Roman history written by a Jew mentions Jesus. Titus Flavius Josephus lived from just after the death of Jesus (37 CE) to 100 CE. (Wikipedia) Josephus found favor by aligning himself with the Roman government, and that afforded him the opportunity to pursue historical scholarship. His works focused on Jewish history, of which the story of Jesus and his influence was of some concern, though small.
The mentions of Jesus by Josephus can be characterized more as asides than anything. The fact that Jesus is mentioned, though, is significant. That he is mentioned only in passing in a text of Jewish history is also significant. Josephus is a credible source because he was not a follower of the Way, and his focus is clearly on Jewish history, of which Jesus of Nazareth was simply incidental.
The Biblical text, itself, suggests other reasons why Jesus may not have been seen as “such a big deal” during his life. He was born to common folk, without fanfare, in a small, provincial town. He was virtually unnoticed for 30 years of his life.
Once his ministry started, zealots among the Jewish people wanted to champion Him as an earthly Messiah who came to throw off Roman rule and establish a Jewish kingdom in their land overrun with Romans. The zealot movement began in 6 AD, and was active during the life of Jesus.
One of the Twelve Disciples, Simon, was a zealot. (Mark 3:18) Barabbas, who was spared instead of Jesus, was a zealot who was being punished for his part in an uprising. (John 18:40) Judas, who betrayed Jesus, may have been a zealot. Many things Jesus did and said we believed to be in fulfillment of Scriptural prophecy, that he was the Messiah the Jews waited for, but the zealots were bitterly disappointed when they realized that Jesus did not intend to deliver them from Roman rule.
Jesus had different plans. The New Testament story claims tells that he came to accomplish a greater victory – victory over sin and death. He did not intend to overthrow the Roman government or to be established as king on the earth.
In one instance after Jesus fed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes, the crowd tried to seize him and make him king, but Jesus slipped away. (When God Withdraws) In another instance, Jesus left the area he was in to avoid the Pharisees who were hearing about the work he was doing.
Jesus did not seek out publicity. In fact, Jesus often intentionally avoided the limelight. In Matthew 5:1, when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. In Matthew 8, when Jesus saw a crowd coming, he moved to the other side of the lake. In Matthew 9:25, 14:22 and 15:39, Jesus sent the crowds away. Jesus left a crowd outside to go into a house in Matthew 13:36.
The words Jesus spoke and the miracles He performed naturally attracted people to him, but he did not seek out the crowds, and He often sought to avoid them. When Jesus performed miracles and healings, He often instructed people not to talk about them.
One thing that stands out in retrospect , after more than two millennium have passed, is that the staying power of Jesus is not due to impact He had when He walked the earth. The impact came later, after His death and resurrection that many people (more than 500) claimed to have witnessed.
His influence is stronger now than it was then. In similar fashion to the few loaves and fishes Jesus used to feed thousands, the earthly following of twelve disciples has multiplied to millions and millions and is still going strong after twenty centuries.
Simeon’s words in the verse at the top of this article are true: Jesus has caused the “falling and rising of many in Israel”; He has been “a sign that [has been] spoken against”; and “the thoughts of many hearts [have been] revealed”. People then, and now, and all throughout history, have reacted to Jesus positively and negatively.
Few , if any, people remain neutral in respect to Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, everywhere Jesus went, people reacted positively and negatively to Him. People still react positively and negatively to Jesus today, and people all throughout history have reacted positively and negatively to Jesus.
Though he was born into humble circumstances in a far flung province of the Roman Empire, an annoyance even among His own people, and only followed by the fringes of that provincial society, Jesus has had an impact on the world like no other. Scholars of all types and all traditions have devoted careers to Him; universities around the world have whole departments engaged in study of Him; other major religions are compelled to reference Him; the Bible is the most common printed material in the world (it isn’t even close); and more things have been written about Jesus and the Bible than any other subject.
Even calendars, time and history, itself, are measured by his birth!
Then and now, even in the discussion of the historical Jesus, people are divided over Him. The words spoken of Jesus were recorded in Luke 2:34-35 dating back to the First Century AD are proven true in every aspect. That, in itself, suggests that this Jesus is everything that has been spoken of Him, especially when we consider the relative insignificance of His life in the time in which He lived.