Historicity of Jesus: Man or Myth?

Skeptics have long sought to prove Jesus is a fictional character. They have posited the story of Jesus is somehow paralleled with myths about Osiris, Horus, Mithras, Krishna, or some other mythological deity. They will even manufacture parallels where none actually exist in the ancient sources.*

It is highly telling to note that virtually no serious academic of the Ancient Near East or of Biblical studies considers the “Christ myth theory” as having any merit. Even the agnostic Bart Ehrman states: These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.** 

There is the suggestion that since early written accounts of Jesus are decades removed from the events recorded and thus are untrustworthy. Some suggest that a span of 30-50 years is sufficient proof that Jesus was a made up figure. After all, with that much time, it is easy to manufacture a person who didn’t really exist. Of course, they aren’t taking into account oral testimony that predates the writings (which the texts refer to). Those sources (and even some written) were in existence from day one.

But here’s the rub. No one in the ancient world actually believed Osiris, Horus, Mithras, or these other figures were historical figures who literally walked on the face of the earth, interacting with humans in real space-time-history. You won’t find one account in the ancient world that reads something like, “In the fourth year of the reign of Thutmose III, Horus was born after his mother resuscitated his father’s body and had sex with it…” (um, not quite a virgin birth, there…). That isn’t how myths and mythology work. They are always vague.

The people of the first century AD were just as sophisticated as 21st century Westerners. They knew dead people generally stay dead and those with limbs cut off (like ears) don’t get them miraculously reattached. The Romans, Greeks, and Jews were not ignorant in the ways of biology or life and death. Humans are rather skeptical by nature.

And yet, no ancient skeptic in the first three hundred years of Jesus’ birth ever suggested that Jesus, the son of Mary was a fictional character. No skeptic in the first century AD suggests that Jesus was not crucified.

Much is speculated about how the gospels and New Testament writings came 20-30 years after Jesus’ death and are thereby unreliable. Yet, even after hundreds and even thousands of years following the creation of the Horus/Osiris myth, or the Mithras myth–no one ever suggested that Horus, Osiris, or Mithras existed and were seen by others. No one ever offers a historical reference of their lives on the earth.

No one seriously believed even a hundred years after Homer a young man named Paris really presided over a contest of three goddesses that resulted in a war led by historical figures Agamemnon and Menelaus against king Priam of Troy. People knew this was fiction. The late first century Romans didn’t suddenly believe that Virgil wrote a historically accurate account of how Aeneas, a survivor of the Trojan war, the son of the goddess Aphrodite founded Rome. They knew it was fiction.

Conveniently ignored is the fact that Christianity sprung out of Judaism and that the first followers of Jesus were the equivalent of orthodox Jews.*** The Jewish men and women who proclaimed Jesus as LORD were not primitive aboriginal people who were uneducated and people who were unaware that dead people stayed dead. They were not people who were easily fooled by smoke and mirrors or fireside tales. And they certainly didn’t fall for pagan myths.

So for those who do not wish to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That is a discussion we can have. For those who wish to believe that Jesus was just a rabbi who got cross purposes with the Roman government–that is a conversation that is worth examining. But please, let’s disabuse ourselves from this notion that Jesus did not exist or that somehow a completely fictional person was created and believed on as god within a few years by Jewish people who borrowed the idea from pagan myths!

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*Note: contrary to the claims that Mithras, Dionysus, Osiris/Horus, or Krishna were born of virgins on December 25 (which is not even a date used of Jesus’ birth in the Bible), had 12 disciples, were crucified and then raised from the dead on the first day of the week–there are almost no parallels between the accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection and that of these pagan deities. Dr. Bart Ehrman: “Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the ‘pagan’ savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).”

**[http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html]

***The often quoted Nag Hamdi texts are second century documents that present a Jesus that more resembles a second century Greek dualistic philosopher as opposed the the earlier attested gospel texts which, quite naturally, present Jesus as a first century Jewish rabbi.

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End of Creation Story

It seems to me that many among Christians believe that creation has little to do with God’s ultimate purposes. The ultimate purpose I was taught growing up was for creation to perish and Christians to be caught up in heaven to live forever. Generally, most folks had no idea what we would actually do there (ideas ranged from a big revival worship service to folks sitting on clouds plucking harps). While I wasn’t a pre-millennialist—this kind of thought process goes hand in hand with the pre-millennial concepts of rapture and tribulation.

It also goes hand in hand with abuse of creation. Since it’s all going to be burned up and destroyed then there’s really little reason to take care of it.

But reading the Bible carefully one discovers that humanity was never meant to be separated from creation. Humans are part of creation. Creation is pronounced “good” and together with humanity it is pronounced “very good.”

According to Romans 5-8 the overarching concern of God is to rescue his creation. It was created out of chaos (formless and void) and the fall represents that chaos trying to break in. But God’s plan was “to bring fruitful order to the world through his image-bearing creatures”.[1] Our failure led to death and deterioration—not only for us but for all creation.

God’s plan for us is not an individualistic “I’m going to take you to heaven” sort of thing.[2] God’s plan is that we will be given our proper place and this will result in creation itself being restored and rescued (Romans 8:20-21). N. T. Wright correctly points out Paul does not say  “life will rule in us through Jesus” but that we will “rule in life” (Romans 5:17): humanity will be restored as rulers who will exercise wise stewardship over creation.[3]

Wright describes a subplot to the story that goes something like this: we are made for relationship with God—our rebellion separated us from that relationship, and God’s action through Jesus restores us to a right relationship with him. However, that is only part of the larger story. And even this subplot fits into the larger whole. Jesus’ action on the cross and through the resurrection is about much more than what we normally assume. The resurrection itself is part of God’s rescue of creation (and us along with it). It is through the resurrection of Jesus (and ultimately our final resurrection) that the creation itself is set free from its slavery to death and decay. Justice is restored, the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven and God dwells with his people (not vice versa—Revelation 21:1-5).

[1] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p 488.

[2] Nor is it “I’m going to prosper you and make your life wonderful”. Sorry folks the quote from Jeremiah 29:11 has nothing to do with us–that’s return from Babylonian exile.

[3] Wright.

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Week 27: Listening

Preparation

  • Recite Psalms 130 & 131
  • Sing the old hymn: “The LORD is in his holy temple / let all the earth keep silence before him. / Keep silence! / Keep silence! / Keep silence before him!”
  • Moment of silence

Presence through the word

  • Psalm reading (selected from below)
    • Morning:         Psalm  34
    • Noon:               Psalm  49
    • Vespers:          Psalm  81
    • Night:               Psalm  143
  • Moment of Silence
  • Scripture readings:
    • Monday:          Deuteronomy 6:4-25
    • Tuesday:         Isaiah 51:1-6
    • Wednesday:    Isaiah 51:7-11
    • Thursday:       Isaiah 51:12-16
    • Friday:            Isaiah 51:17-23
  • Moment of Silence

Practicing the presence

It seems we always want to hear from God. We do not want to hear a word from God: we want a paragraph! But if we never take time to listen to him through the text, or through God’s community (or through family members who might really be listening), why should we expect God to speak?

In James 1 we are told to ask for wisdom but if we don’t ask in faith then we shouldn’t expect to receive an answer. “Faith” in James refers to active obedience. It is as if James is saying, “If you don’t plan to follow the wisdom God would give you–if you’re hedging your bets–why would you expect him to waste his time by granting wisdom?”

So this week, listen! Take a “vow of silence” in which you pledge to yourself to not speak anything unnecessary. Don’t broadcast this vow. Just observe it and as you do listen to God as he speaks to you through the people you associate with and work with, through the community of God, and naturally through your reading of the text.

In prayer, instead of asking and trying to come up with phrases: spend the time in silent listening. Just be quiet before God. Don’t necessarily expect to hear anything–you are not praying to manipulate God. You are in silence before him acknowledging that He is the creator and all should be still and silent before him.

Prayers

  • Prayers of thanksgiving and petition
  • Journaling or silent reflection
  • “The Lord’s Prayer”
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Week 26: Suffering (1)

My two weeks rest turned into a six weeks absence!  My apologies for neglecting this blog! The trip to Ukraine was mixed with joy and sadness. Joy at seeing so many of our wonderful friends, sadness of not being able to be in Donetsk due to the violence–sadness that so many are suffering and hurting, sadness that there are brothers and sisters fighting each other. Please continue to pray for the peace of Ukraine!

Preparation

  • Recite Psalms 130 & 131
  • Moment of silence

Presence through the word

  • Psalm reading (selected from below)
    • Morning:         Psalm 88
    • Noon:               Psalm 6
    • Vespers:          Psalm 42
    • Night:               Psalm 73
  • Moment of Silence
  • Scripture readings:
    • Monday:          Job 1
    • Tuesday:         Job 2:1-10
    • Wednesday:    Job 2:11-13
    • Thursday:       Job 3
    • Friday:            Job 6:1-23
  • Moment of Silence

Practicing the presence

Life is difficult. The sooner we realize this the sooner life becomes more manageable. But some suffering seems irredeemable. Some suffering seems so harsh that how can this ever be redemptive?

Perhaps we can never know in this life. While suffering is universal and the “thing we fear the most” will come to us all, we still suffer in different degrees.

To put perspective on your own personal experience of suffering, seek out this week those who are hurting. You may want to visit a nursing home, a hospital, the sick in your congregation, or volunteer to do some work in a homeless shelter or children’s home.

When you go–be like Job’s friends at the end of chapter 2 (this is the only time I’d recommend following their examples!): go in silence. Do not offer advice or suggestions about why people suffer. Instead seek to suffer with.

The Greek word translated sympathy means literally “to feel with.” Our word sympathy has lost this meaning–this fits more the word empathy. As you go to serve others this week, go with the intent of attempting to feel with those you serve–rather than feel sorry for them.

Prayers

  • Prayers of thanksgiving and petition
  • Journaling or silent reflection
  • “The Lord’s Prayer”
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Two Week Rest

The title is somewhat misnamed. I’m not going to rest over the next two weeks: but you get a rest from my devotional suggestions!

I would like to ask you during this next full week to pray for me. I will be traveling to Ukraine and working there for a week. I am very eager to see so many of my friends, co-workers, and colleagues. I will miss seeing some very dear friends who live in Donetsk. Please keep them in your prayers!

Pray for the peace of Ukraine! Pray that peace, love, and unity will prevail. There may be a lot of hard feelings in existence, but God is the God of peace. He is the God who specializes in tearing down walls of hostility! He’s done it before, pray he will do it again and soon!

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Week Twenty: Remembrance

My apologies for the delay in getting this week’s devotional guide out. I hope everyone took time out this Memorial Day to remember those who have sacrificed their lives in the countless military conflicts that our nation has experienced. Regardless of one’s view (pacifist or just war advocate) I think we can all agree that the dead should be honored–that we should “mark the moment” and not forget.

Preparation

  • Recite Psalms 130 & 131
  • Moment of silence

Presence through the word

  • Psalm reading (selected from below)
    • Morning:         Psalm 5
    • Noon:               Psalm 44
    • Vespers:          Psalm 74
    • Night:               Psalm 117
  • Moment of Silence
  • Scripture readings:
    • Monday:          Genesis 35:1-14
    • Tuesday:         Exodus 12:1-28
    • Wednesday:    Numbers 10:1-10
    • Thursday:       Deuteronomy 6
    • Friday:            Joshua 3:14-4:9
  • Moment of Silence

Practicing the presence

Memory is an important thing for the follower of God. Throughout the Bible we see God setting up rituals, commands, and monuments with one purpose in mind: to remember. God puts great emphasis upon keeping his love and guidance fresh on the minds of those he loves.

It seems he constantly sets up a practice to elicit questions that lead to retelling the story of the rescue for his people.

In the New Testament this practice carries over in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. A memorial meal was given, questions are assumed, and a story is told. God wants his people to remember.

This week, how will you choose to remember what God has done to rescue you? What can you use as a reminder to keep his love and provision first and foremost in your mind? Open this up to your family and ask them to create your own family ritual to help you remember God’s loving care.

Prayers

  • Prayers of thanksgiving and petition
  • Journaling or silent reflection
  • “The Lord’s Prayer”
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What Would Jesus Do? Turn over tables? Really?

“When someone asks you ‘think about what Jesus would do’, remember that a valid option is to make a whip and turn over tables” 

I’ve seen this plastered all over Facebook recently. The quote is kind of cute and funny–even makes you think.

Except, it is simplistic at best–and disingenuous at its worst.

Simplistic: Jesus sees injustice so he acts violently. This completely takes the cleansing of the Temple out of its literary-historical context. As Messiah (and as God) Jesus had the authority to cleanse the Temple. It was a demonstration of Messianic identity. It was also the precursor of the final cleansing of the Temple in 70 AD.

The cursing of the fig tree and temple cleansing were demonstrations of God’s judgment upon Israel (see Malachi 3:1-3).

I don’t think any of us can claim Jesus’ authority to do this sort of thing.

Jesus also observed the Mosaic law, walked most everywhere…or rode a donkey…followed his father’s line of business until he was around 30–became an itinerant preaching rabbi who miraculously healed people and raised the dead–are you still ready to ask WWJD?

Disingenuous: Why do we choose this scene over say, Jesus refusing to defend himself, refusing to open his mouth, and allowing himself to be led to crucifixion? Or following his clear teachings of “turning the other cheek” or his extending mercy to a woman guilty of a capital crime? Or loving on and associating with those who were the complete outcast (socially and religiously).

We like the Temple cleansing example because it gives us the right to be righteously indignant and to react aggressively (verbally or emotionally) and to devastate our opponents.

The question is wrong to begin with.

Yes, he has left us an example to follow. However, it is more than simply following a few moral guidelines or trying to imitate a minimal amount of examples recorded in the gospels. You have to go beneath the actions and capture the intent (which, after all, was one of his stated points in the Sermon on the Mount–Matthew 5:21-22, 27-30, 33-37).

Paul speaks of having the “mind of Christ.” This is Spirit work (2 Corinthians 3:18). This is a living thing–for God to develop within us the heart and mindset of the Messiah: a grace-filled attitude that embodies the character of Jesus as described in Philippians 2–the kenosis or self-emptying–not seeking his own will and rights but being willing to give up what was rightfully his; to seek out the highest good for others.

Perhaps a better question might be: What does it mean to empty myself in this particular situation in order to demonstrate the mind of Christ? Not very catchy to be sure, but…

Something to think about.

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