Who was Jesus? A friend recently asked, “Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism. Right?” He explained his thought that the people who came after Jesus created a new religion using him as the central figure in spite of who he really was – just a Jewish man preaching Judaism.
This is a popular Internet characterization of Christianity. I am not a scholar on the subject, but I did minor in religion in college. I took all the courses for a religion major, including the thesis course, and I even did the research and wrote the thesis. I would have had a religion major if I had turned in my thesis. I didn’t do it because I didn’t need the major. I took the classes because I was interested in them. I didn’t hand in the thesis paper because I didn’t feel good about it.
A religion major at a small liberal arts school meant majoring in “religion” generally. There were no flavors available for particular study. We looked at all religions, though we focused most heavily on Judaism and Christianity. That is because there was one “Christian” professor and one “Jewish” professor.
The Christian professor took the position that “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain”. Of the Christian road, he was very fond of Liberation Theology that took the position that the God has been changing, progressing and more or less learning to be God throughout time. Liberation Theology was born in South America among the people who were oppressed by the corrupt government and military forces in the 1970’s, and the Catholic priests who espoused this theology believed in taking arms in counter-insurgence against the oppressive political and military regimes.
My “Christian” experience included some very progressive literature. We were encouraged to sit in on lectures given by people like Hare Krishnas and a European Muslim – both lectures that I attended, among others. The Jewish professor was very much the modern, reformed variety – not conservative or Hasidic. This was my introduction to religion and to the Bible.
I did read the Bible from cover to cover in college, not only as an academic exercise as part of my course of study, but because I was drawn to it. In the midst of the all-roads-lead-to-the-same-mountaintop atmosphere in which I studied, I began to be taken by Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) This is because Jesus stood head and shoulders above all the other religious personalities that I read about. There was something transcendentally different about him.
As I have been thinking about the (largely rhetorical) question my friend posed about Jesus, I think of the sweep of the Bible – Old Testament to New Testament, beginning to end. Having been intimate with it for well over 30 years, having read it many times over, and recounting my own journey of discovery, I feel compelled to tackle the question, but the scope of the answer is daunting.
To begin with, we should consider that the “Christian” Bible was written by 66 authors over a period of 1500 years. The “Old Testament” Scriptures are known in Judaism as the Torah (Teaching), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). The foundation is basically the same for Christianity and Judaism – thus, why we use the phrase, Judeo-Christian. When I read it for the first time in college, I was amazed at the intricately woven narrative through all the writings of those 66 people over 1500 years, and it made sense to me (though I wasn’t yet a believer) that only God could weave such a finely woven tapestry.
The term, “Judaism”, likely wasn’t used until the 16th Century. (According to the Oxford English Dictionary the earliest citation in English where the term was used to mean “the profession or practice of the Jewish religion; the religious system or polity of the Jews” is Robert Fabyan’s The newe cronycles of Englande and of Fraunce (1516).(See Wikipedia)) The history of the people in whose lineage Jesus was born pre-dated his birth by two or three millennia, and their history was well-preserved. They claimed relationship with “the” one true God.
Their religious history began with a man originally named Abram, latter known as Abraham. His story is that he uniquely heard God’s voice. He moved his family and all of his possessions (he was a wealthy man) to a land God promised to his descendants. He picked up and went, though he was already of old age. The story that is recorded describes that God told him he would have descendants as multitudinous as the stars in the sky, though he had no children yet.
Perhaps, the most well-known (and perhaps most misunderstood) story about Abraham involves his son that he eventually had, Isaac. Isaac was a miraculous son because Abraham’s wife was past child-bearing age. But when Isaac was a young boy, Abraham believed that God was telling him to sacrifice his son to God. The story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult for us to understand in our modern sensibilities.
In studying the history of world religions, the atmosphere in which Abraham believed he heard God sheds light on the story. Child sacrifice was understood in the ancient near-east as the way of placating arbitrary and capricious gods to whom the people vowed their allegiance or paid the price of their insolence. This was the world in which Abraham lived. Though the idea ran contrary to what Abraham believed God told him about his descendants, Abraham trusted the voice of God that he heard.
As the story goes, Abraham was willing to do what he thought he must do, but God provided a scapegoat at the moment when Abraham was about to do the deed. That Abraham was open and sensitive to this voice of God that whispered in his ear, “I have provided an alternative”, is remarkable, given all that Abraham knew and understood. It was truly revolutionary!
The history of the descendants of this man, Abraham, is documented in the Hebrew Scriptures. Similar to the idea of a progression in the Scriptures that my professor pinned on God, I see a progression in the unfolding of a plan by which God works out His purposes among people – beginning with a man sensitive enough to hear His voice and willing to respond to it, and a people in whom God could lay out the groundwork for the pivotal entry of God into the history of His own creation. This is the story of Jesus.
Yes, he was “Jewish” (though that word was coined long after he lived). He entered history in a particular time and place among a particular people, but His message was universal. His story is bracketed in the Gospel of John, the apostle of whom it is said that Jesus loved, one of the two closest people to Jesus, this way (John 1:10-13):
“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
His claims were audacious. The religious leaders were threatened by him and wanted to kill him for blasphemy because he equated himself with God. (John 8:12-58) His own brothers didn’t believe that he was who he said he was. (See John 7:1-9)
The Gospels describe the progression of the public life of Jesus to the point of his death and after. The Book of Acts, written by Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke, pick up the story from after his death. It reads like a biographical account, warts and all, revealing that even his closest followers didn’t fully understand who he was and what he was up to. His followers were devastated by his arrest, sentencing at the insistence of the religious leaders and death, and they scattered. Hardly a story of their heroics.
Other self-proclaimed Messiahs had come and gone in the time period before Jesus, leading insurrections against the Roman rule that stifled the destiny of the descendants of Abraham in the very land they believed God had promised to them. (See Acts 5:27-40) Their followings had always dispersed when those insurrectionists died, but Jesus was different.
First of all, he never advocated the overthrow of the Roman government and political revolt. When accused of political insurrection, Jesus respond that his kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:33-39) Jesus was sentenced to death in spite of the fact the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, found no guilt in him (on the basis of Roman law). He was sentenced at the insistence of the Jews.
After his horrific, public, humiliating death on the cross, the followers of Jesus didn’t disperse like the followers of the other insurrectionists. Rather, within 60 days from the date of his death, his following grew exponentially! (See Acts 2) Three thousand were added at one time, and the followers swelled to 5000 shortly thereafter. (See Acts 4:1-4) And, of course, the following continued to swell and to grow beyond the local area into the adjacent regions, throughout the entire Greco Roman world and as far away as India within a generation of the death of Christ. (See an account of the churches in India beginning in 50 AD when the Apostle Thomas first visited.)
How do we explain that if Jesus was nothing but a Jew preaching Judaism? How do we explain that if Jesus was nothing but a construct of generations that followed him, created as nothing more than a legend in the minds of later generations? (For an account of Christianity in India, you can read Antidote to Poison by Ravi Zacharias, a man born and raised with the influence of Hinduism in India.)
The following that swelled after his death was not attributed to the message he spoke. It was attributed the testimony of his followers that he rose from the dead! Paul emphasizes the primary importance of the resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthians in which he lists out all the people to whom Jesus appeared after his death. (See 1 Corinthians 15) The list includes well over 500 people! And Paul says most of them were still alive when he penned the letter.
Even skeptics know and admit that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is authentic and was written with 30 or so years after Jesus died. (See The Resurrection: 2nd Century Myth? Or First Century Factual Claim?)
Was Jesus “just a Jew” preaching Judaism? This is what he said to a gathering of religious leaders:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)
At another gathering, Jesus said:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
After his death and resurrection, Jesus spent time with the people closest to him “opening the scriptures” to them, explaining how everything in Moses (the Torah), Prophets and Psalms (Writings) (the Old Testament) was fulfilled in him. (See Luke 24:22-48)
And the last thing Jesus instructed his followers was to take the message of his death and resurrection and the love and forgiveness of God to all the nations. (Matthew 28:16-20) These words echo what Abraham heard God say – that his descendants would be a blessing to all nations. The point of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke is to highlight that Jesus is from the lineage of Abraham. Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of all that is written in the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.
These writings all anticipate Jesus. They all pave the way for him. Though the writers of those documents could not have known exactly what they were writing about, they were inspired to write them by God. They are a seamless, intricate tapestry that only a sovereign God could have woven through the history of imperfect people who were often hostile, unwilling and faithless to purpose that God ordained and brought about in spite of them.
And we shouldn’t blame them or judge them for those imperfections, as we are all imperfect. We only see through a glass darkly. We are constantly prone to wander from God, but he is faithful to us and faithful to complete the work He has begun.
If God is God, He can communicate with us, His creation. He can reveal Himself to us. He can preserve the integrity of that communication. He can accomplish HIs purposes. The Bible, the Old Testament and New Testament, from front to back, has the hallmarks of this kind sweep and scope and character. It is unlike any other religious writings. No other religious writings have the same sweep, scope and character.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus is Isaiah 53. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have known that the book of Isaiah predates the birth of Jesus by at least 200 years (the carbon dating age of the completely intact Isaiah Scroll found among the scrolls found at Qumran). Read Isaiah 53 in light of the claims by Jesus that we was the fulfillment of all the writings in the Old Testament. See what you think.
You might also see it through the eyes of Jewish man who never considered Isaiah 53 in the context of the story of Jesus. (See Christmas Thoughts: What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Have to Do With Christmas?)