Modern View of Jesus


What we know about Jesus depends mainly on four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, known collectively as the Gospels. Many who deny His exalted station justify themselves by saying that the Gospels are unreliable. Leading Bible critics during the nineteenth century argued that the Gospels are a collection of legends which evolved as a legitimizing framework for the practices of a religious cult. They held that these practices in their shadowy origins may or may not have been connected with the life of a historical person named Jesus. Critics belonging to the so-called liberal school maintained that when the legendary layers of the Gospels are peeled away, within them is found a real person who was essentially a teacher of profound ethical concepts. But discoveries during the last fifty years have discredited old-style criticism of the Gospels. Much evidence now available shows that the Gospels were put into their present form before AD 100. Their origination so soon after the events they relate does not sustain the hypothesis that they are mostly legendary. Today, it is almost universally undisputed that Jesus was a historical figure who, in some degree or manner, set forth His role as Messianic.

Yet there are many who still believe that the Gospels contain more fiction than fact. Among secular critics, as well as among many clergymen and seminary professors in some Christian denominations, the prevailing view is that the Gospels are the work of pious imagination. It is supposed that during the early decades of the church, the gradual loss of distinct memories about Jesus left a vacuum that the faithful found unsatisfying. They wanted to know more about their beloved Master. Thus, as their leaders prophesied under the fancied influence of the Holy Spirit, they began to reconstruct Jesus' life. Over a span of years they invented the stories and sayings which now form the Gospels. A scenario of this kind is assumed by any scholar today who asserts that the Gospels have little historical value.


Greatness of Jesus


The strongest reason for confidence that the Gospels give a true picture of Jesus is a rule from the canons of literary criticism, a rule sometimes useful for resolving a question of authorship. That rule is, a work cannot be greater than its author. It should be obvious to any reader of the Gospels that Jesus overshadows His followers. He is far loftier in His mind and character than any mythic hero that the early church might have invented. Therefore, if the Jesus of Christianity cannot be a figment of pious imagination, the Gospels must be a truthful memorial to a real man.

However we look at Jesus, we find Him to be unique.


Intellect

Creativity. His sayings have fascinated and challenged the greatest minds in history. Would a motley group of Galilean tradesmen and their womenfolk have been able to fabricate such a body of teaching?

His superiority to His followers is displayed, for example, in His wonderful deftness with words. When His sayings are restored to their original Aramaic, many have poetical features, including parallelism, rhythm, and even rhyme (1). So far as we know, none of the chief apostles ever created anything of like character. Though Paul alludes to a few Christian hymns possibly of his own composition (Eph. 5:14: Phil. 2:6-11), his style is to pile thought upon thought, whereas Jesus encapsulates each thought in a pithy saying.

The writings of the chief apostles contain no parables, though these abound in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus' parables are masterful creations combining utmost simplicity with profound depth. They present scenes familiar to common people, and though they scan a wide range of human experience, they seldom refer to aspects of ancient Jewish culture that would someday require elucidation in footnotes. As a result, they are accessible to every audience. Nothing like them is found in the New Testament outside the Gospels.

Language is as individual as a face, and the language of Jesus is especially distinctive. All His sayings are concise and well molded. Unwilling to concede that Jesus created anything so ingenious, many critics have theorized that these sayings were worked and reworked by a series of preachers and redactors until they reached their present form. It is inconceivable, however, that such tinkering could produce a body of teaching stamped by one mind and personality. Jesus' particular genius is evident in every saying ascribed to Him. He had rare facility in creating metaphors and in compressing ideas into a few words. By a few quick strokes He could transform complex truth into an effective word painting. His words in John are more conversational than in the Synoptics, but they show the same mind at work.

Debating skill. Which of us in debate does not fumble around for the right argument? Yet, even when His enemies pressed Him savagely or cajoled Him cunningly, Jesus found the right argument instantly and with ease. His intellectual self-possession was remarkable. As a boy, He confounded the religious teachers in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-50). As a man, He could in a few words silence the shrewdest adversary (Matt. 22:22, 33, 46).

He was expert in wielding all the principal tools of debate. The following saying is essentially the condensation of an argument known as reductio ad absurdum.

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

Matthew 5:29

From the premises, "I am hindered from going to heaven by my lustful eye," and, "I cannot bring my lustful eye under control," Jesus draws a logical but absurd conclusion—"I must pluck out my eye"—showing that since the first premise is true, the second must be absurd like the conclusion.

Jesus repeatedly exposed the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of His opponents (Matt. 23:16-22) and fended off their attacks on Him by adroitly introducing saving distinctions (Mark 12:17, 25) or by finding support for His teaching in what His opponents believed to be true (John 10:34-36). Yet, unlike Paul's, Jesus' dialectical method was never discursive. It was straight to the point. Unlike most human argumentation, it cut away all disclaimers, apologies, hedgings, jokes, innuendoes, attacks on straw men, background remarks, acknowledgments, references to precedent and scholarly opinion, asides, and wordy digressions—in short, all polemical dead weight—and thereby fashioned the truth to fit simple statements that everyone could understand and remember.

Profundity. Nothing in the nonbiblical writings of man is comparable to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). For thousands of years men have revered, studied, and debated this short homily, but have failed to exhaust its treasures, though it contains less than three thousand words. It is a work of exceeding brilliance in its structure, economy, vividness, use of metaphor, originality, and moral insight. The same wisdom that shines out from the Sermon on the Mount informs all of Jesus' teaching.

Psychological insight. Jesus was a man who understood people. His dealings with them were never bumbling or inept. He always knew exactly what nuance to assume in His speech and manner. With the proud He was abrupt and penetrating (John 3:1-10), but with the humble He was gentle and patient (Matt. 8:2-3).

In His many interactions with other people, the Jesus of the Gospels displays much greater psychological insight than we would find in a mythical character invented by religious enthusiasts. He uncovers the sordid past of the Samaritan woman by prodding her into speaking the truth herself, so that she will feel ashamed rather than defensive (John 4:5-42). Though He has warm feelings for the rich young ruler, He greets him with a hard demand, for He perceives that the man is motivated by challenge. The man says, in essence, that he has mastered all the difficult requirements of the law, so Jesus lays down an even more difficult requirement, the one most helpful to his spiritual growth. He tells the man to give up earthly possessions and become His follower (Mark 10:17-27). After Jesus reveals that Peter will be a founder of the church, He prevents him from becoming puffed up and proud by calling him Satan's mouthpiece (Matt. 16:13-23).

If the Gospels were fictitious, they would probably lack the episodes in which Jesus rebukes His family or keeps them at a distance (John 2:4; Mark 3:31-35). His purpose, no doubt, was to keep them humble, so that they would not be tempted to misuse their kinship with the great Savior and Founder of the church. He wanted to spare them from the delusion that their blood tie to Jesus entitled them to eternal salvation. Also, He wanted to prevent any of His brothers from aspiring to be His successor.


Character

Righteousness. During the days of His ministry, the only charges that Jesus' enemies brought against His character were these:

  1. He ate with publicans (tax collectors) and sinners (Matt. 9:10-13).
  2. He disregarded Sabbath law by healing on the Sabbath and by allowing His disciples to pluck handfuls of grain on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-13).
  3. He did healings by the power of the devil (Matt. 12:24).
  4. His disciples failed to wash their hands before eating bread (Matt. 15:2).
  5. At His trial, His enemies raised a charge of sedition, but this was dismissed by the Roman governor, Pilate (Luke 23:2-4).

His life, though scrutinized by bitter enemies, yielded no hint of covetousness or scandal. He was able in a public forum to challenge His enemies with the question, "Which of you convinceth me of sin?" (John 8:46).

Simon Greenleaf, the great lawyer of days past who formulated modern rules of evidence, has left us the following meditation on the moral perfection of Christ.

. . . The great character they [the gospel writers] have portrayed is perfect. It is the character of a sinless Being; of one supremely wise and supremely good. It exhibits no error, no sinister intention, no imprudence, no ignorance, no evil passion, no impatience; in a word, no fault; but all is perfect uprightness, innocence, wisdom, goodness and truth. The mind of man has never conceived the idea of such a character, even for his gods; nor has history or poetry shadowed it forth. The doctrines and precepts of Jesus are in strict accordance with the attributes of God, agreeably to the most exalted idea which we can form of them, either from reason or from revelation. They are strikingly adapted to the capacity of mankind, and yet are delivered with a simplicity and majesty wholly divine. He spake as never man spake. He spake with authority; yet addressed himself to the reason and the understanding of men; and he spake with wisdom, which men could neither gainsay nor resist. In his private life, he exhibits a character not merely of strict justice, but of overflowing benignity. He is temperate, without austerity; his meekness and humility are signal; his patience is invincible; truth and sincerity illustrate his whole conduct; every one of his virtues is regulated by consummate prudence; and he both wins the love of his friends, and extorts the wonder and admiration of his enemies. He is represented in every variety of situation in life, from the height of worldly grandeur, amid the acclamations of an admiring multitude, to the deepest abyss of human degradation and woe, apparently deserted of God and man. Yet everywhere he is the same; displaying a character of unearthly perfection, symmetrical in all its proportions, and encircled with splendor more than human. Either the men of Galilee were men of superlative wisdom, and extensive knowledge and experience, and of deeper skill in the arts of deception, than any and all others, before or after them, or they have truly stated the astonishing things which they saw and heard (2).

Compassion. Yet another aspect of Jesus' character was unusual compassion. He defended the poor and oppressed (Luke 6:20-21; 14:12-14). He bestowed His blessing upon children (Luke 18:15-17; notice also, in Mark 5:21-24, 35-43 and Luke 7:11-17, that two of the three persons He raised from the dead were young). Through His healing ministry, He brought relief to multitudes of the sick, disabled, and possessed. He was moved with concern for the milling crowds lost in darkness (Matt. 9:35-38).

He gave unstinting love and kindness even to total outcasts.

The leaders of the early church were compassionate men, but they were also good Jews. If they had created a fictional messiah, they would have made him conform to popular expectations. But the Jesus we see in the Gospels turned all these expectations upside down. Whereas the Jews imagined that the Messiah would be a holier-than-thou super-Pharisee, darling of the Pharisees, Jesus associated with publicans and lepers. Instead of heaping cold severity upon obvious sinners, He heaped it upon sanctimonious religious leaders.

Also, if the leaders of the early church had contrived the life of Jesus as a piece of fiction, they would never have broken out of their insular Jewishness and invented the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) or Jesus' last commission (Acts 1:8). Both place the evangelism of Jews no higher in importance than the evangelism of Samaritan half-breeds and gentile dogs.

The compassion of a legendary figure created by deluded sectaries within first-century Judaism would fall so short of Jesus' compassion that we would not even consider it outstanding. The compassion of Jesus could only proceed from the original mind and unfettered heart of an ethical genius, aloof from all the prejudices of His time.


Concept of the Messiah's mission

The Jews expected that after the Messiah appeared, He would immediately lead them in glorious conquest of their enemies, then ascend the throne of David and rule the world in righteousness. Yet Jesus rejected the popular hope as unscriptural. He knew that He could not take the throne before He endured the cross. So, He embarked upon a career leading inevitably not to gain and glory, but to defeat and death. Indeed, His purpose was to die for the redemption of others. His unconventional concept of the Messiah's mission assures us that the Gospels tell about a real man, for no messiah of Jewish fiction would ever hand victory to the enemies of his people by allowing them to take his life. Much less would he seek an accursed death by crucifixion.

Since Jesus was a real person of prodigious wisdom and love, we need not doubt that the whole substance of the Gospels is reliable history. For more than a century, critics have anatomized the Gospels in an effort to show that they are like an onion in structure, with layers of fiction surrounding layers of truth. But the effort has failed miserably. Everything that the critics have sifted out and ascribed to later invention shows the mind of Christ as well as what remains.

Footnotes

  1. Charles Fox Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord: An Examination of the Formal Elements of Hebrew Poetry in the Discourses of Jesus Christ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925).
  2. Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (repr., New York: James Cockcroft & Co., 1874; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984), 52-53.