The Historical Christ


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Once a year people remember the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday. Few historical facts are as well-documented as the death of a man referred to as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah (Hebrew) or Christ (Greek) around 33 A.D. The claim that he was resurrected from the dead is a different matter. The modern mind, influenced by many centuries of science and discovery and the relatively recent (200 hundred years) of ascension of materialist thought, is highly skeptical.

Looking back at the Gospel accounts with a modern, skeptical view, the implausibility colors our view of the early followers of Christ. Some modern thinkers conclude that the story was manufactured by the followers of Jesus. For what end, one might ask. What did it gain those early followers?

At one point, the followers of Jesus most certainly dreamed that he was the Messiah who would be set up as King of the Jews in Jerusalem as the prophets of old foretold, but Jesus, himself, dismissed those thoughts. The crucifixion crushed them. After Jesus’s death, there was no attempt at uprising to suggest that such dream remained in the minds of his followers.

They did not take up arms. Instead, they huddled together and prayed. They sold off or shared their possessions, and lived together in sacrificial, communal living. They began doing what Jesus did: they shared the message in the temple, city square and anywhere an audience would listen. They did these things with no attempt to bring about an earthly coup. They did these things with no ostensible motive to establish a new earthly government, but to introduce people to a “heavenly” one.

No one was in a better position to know the truth of Jesus’s death and purported resurrection than his followers. It is one thing to believe against probability in something based on second hand information, speculation and sheer hope; but who believes in something that is known to be a lie? If those early followers knew that Jesus died, but they had no proof he was resurrected, the charade would certainly not have been kept to the point of his followers’ own deaths. But that is the history: tradition is that most of the disciples (all but John) died for the message they proclaimed – that Jesus died, and Jesus rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures. Other early followers we know were imprisoned, beaten, lived in poverty and died for that message.

Some modern scholars doubt the dating of the documents that make up the New Testament. They suggest that the Gospels and other New Testament documents were actually written one hundred of more years after the actual events that they purport to describe. In this way, modern scholars discount the impact of the early followers, suggesting that the accounts are simply stories that took on legendary, but fictional, character and were written generations after Jesus died. The stories, therefore, are nothing but imaginative embellishments of what actually took place. The resurrection story, therefore, was a fabrication concocted several generations after Jesus died.

Not so says Gary Habermas, and some of the most prominent skeptics now agree with him. If you care to listen to the entire argument, you can view the Gary Habermas present it here. In short, he takes biblical texts that the skeptics accept as written by Paul written within a generation of Christ’s death, and he demonstrates with reference to extra-biblical information how the message that Jesus resurrected from the dead can be traced to within one to two years after his death! If the message of the resurrection was already being spread within two years after Jesus’s death, then it was not fabricated generations later. That means it was being proclaimed by and with the knowledge of the eye witnesses to his death.

With those things in mind, consider the New Testament writings, themselves:

  • From the Book of Acts: “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.” (Acts 13:30-31)
  • From 1 Peter:  “I who am [a] fellow Elder … have been an eye-witness of the sufferings of the Christ” (1 Peter 5:1);
  • From 2 Peter: “We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pet. 1:16)
  • From 1 John: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard….” (1 John 1:3)
  • From Hebrews: “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” (Heb. 2:3);
  • From Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1);

Perhaps, the most significant of the New Testament statements of the resurrection comes from Paul’s recollection of the events that occurred after the death of Jesus on the cross (1 Cor. 15:1-8):

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

lightstock_108943_xsmall_user_7997290Paul recounts all of the people who encountered the risen Christ, including himself. Paul’s encounter was different, however. Jesus had already ascended, but he appeared to Paul (known as Saul at the time) on the road to Damascus. Paul describes the encounter in his own words in Acts 22. Paul also candidly admits that the foundation of the Christian faith rests on the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the resurrection, there is nothing to the Christian faith (1 Cor. 15:13-20):

[I]f Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!

On this Good Friday, contemplate the death that Jesus Christ most certainly suffered on a cross in the region of Judea in the First Century AD. Of that point there is really little historical doubt. We should also consider that we would not be remembering his death if it were not for the resurrection. His death would be no different than the two thieves on either side of him, forgotten altogether by history, if it were not that he arose from the dead, appeared to more than 500 people and then ascended to the Father.

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