I wonder if I could have the privilege of picking your brain. I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus as a real figure in history recently – and the fact that He is the head of the church, and it has led me to question what about Jesus’ ministry sets him apart from all other leaders of groups – for example, people who claim to be second prophets, etc; ‘cult’ leaders like Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite of the Heavens Gate group, even political leaders who get people to commit themselves to their ideals.
What confuses me is that other people still follow these other leaders, even though their claims are incredibly bizarre – leading people even to suicide! Yet they manage to convince people of their divinity or of their supernatural nature; often they too believe it wholeheartedly themselves. Jesus’ ministry, on the other hand, has stood the test of time… and obviously involves acts of love, not stuff like suicide. Yet his claims too would have seemed bizarre at the time, and rightly still do, for he does make incredible claims. I suppose my question is how to be confident in the fact that the case of Jesus’ is not such a case – that the early christians have not been influenced in such a way?
I do realise that this question is very similar to the Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma; but I think it lies somewhere in between the Liar and Lunatic option. And it has been getting at me for a while. I think the saving grace of it would be the Resurrection, the strongest extrabiblical source for the Resurrection I could find being Tacitus (Ian, you mentioned that) – although that does not explicitly mention the resurrection, it does address a later insurgence of Christianity after Jesus’ death on the Cross. Which I agree is highly noteworthy and should be attributed to the Resurrection, but could this perhaps be due to the relapse period often found with groups after a ‘low point’? (although the Cross can hardly be considered a low point now!!! Woo) – examine other groups, even the failed predictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses still relighted after realigning a few years later; or some of those in the Heavens Gate group who didn’t commit suicide the first time did so at a later date. I do also consider the Biblical writings a valid source, although they will carry a message from those already committed to the group. And again, this can often have significant effects (for example, witch doctors in tribal cultures appear to do incredibly supernatural things to those committed to their cause).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing Jesus of being a witch doctor! I have been blessed enough to witness His love and power in my life and in others’ lives, and I am not God and can never know all His ways. But it is a question that has been on my mind recently. And I think it could carry significant import for my christian life. I am open to having to change the way I am approaching the question or my mindset too, I’ve tried my best to be objective. If you have any books that you recommend and think that I should go read up more, I’m open to that too. Anyway, I love you all, and I’m so grateful that I can come to you for your wisdom and your perspectives!!! Reply in your own time.
Your question is too broad to provide a single or even a list of a dozen specific answers/responses. It will be primarily to rehash what I know you already know. I think what you are asking is how to think about this, not what evidence should we use.
I say we should bear in mind that “Satan masquerades an an angel of light.” One of his most affective ploys is to pull stunts which appear, at least on a shallow level, somewhat like the real thing. Given that Satan is real and that he is a very intelligent being, we should not be surprised that he would do false miracles, provide false fulfillments of prophecy and the like. Like Doug Jacoby points out in the Robert Price debate he mentioned (you should get a copy from www.ipibooks.com), the fantastic number of imitators or cluged-together pseudo-imitators of Christ could, in a very odd, indirect and perhaps not even very convincing way, be used as one of the evidences that Jesus is the real thing. Like they say; “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” The reason everyone wants to make themselves seem to be Jesus-like is that he is the only real deal in town. He is the only one whose life could really back it up. Peter said of Jesus that he was a worker of signs, wonders and miracles, “as you yourselves know.” Jesus left an empty tomb and God caused the events to be such that the question of how it became empty was quite clear cut.
It is true that those who are subject to unclear thinking can become confused about the qualitative distinction between the evidence for the validity of Jesus’ claims and those of Osiris (who never even lived), Apollonius of Tyana (who lived, probably, but for whom comparisons to Jesus are literally laughable), and others. It is also true that ridiculously biased scholars are more than willing to abuse the evidence to produce a case that Jesus is somehow in a group with Krishna, Zoroaster, etc. However, I am sure that you are well aware that such comparisons are such that to say Jesus is in a different category is to fantastically understate the case.
None of the other pretenders, even ones today, made such fantastic claims, although a few gullible people do in fact follow the Heaven’s Gate leader or Sun Myung Moon or others, in spite of the clearly unwarranted claims. To say that the evidence in favor of Jesus being a spokesperson for God is greater than that for Apollonius or for Sun Myung Moon is so blatantly obvious that anyone not seeing this is clearly not being rational. The case for Jesus was worked out in the 2nd and 3rd century in front of the greatest Greek and Roman philosophers, and Jesus won. That is how strong the evidence for Jesus is.
I disagree that the claims of Jesus were bizarre in his own time. They were spectacular. They were astounding, but they were not bizarre. Even his enemies knew this. That is why they killed him, rather than just locking him up. If his claims had merely been bizarre, they could have afforded to ignore him or put him away. His claims were not bizarre because he raised Lazarus from the dead. That his claims were not bizarre was made spectacularly more clear when he was raised from the dead, betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, crucified, pierced, his clothes were gambled for, he rose from the dead on the third day (see Abraham and Jonah), etc……
Yes, Jesus made absolutely fantastic claims, but yes, also, he worked signs, wonders and miracles, he fulfilled dozens of specific historical prophecies, as well as hundreds of types, prefigures and foreshadows and, most significantly of all, yes, his tomb was empty. We know this, and a limited number of these fulfillments and miracles were even confirmed, directly or indirectly, by Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, the Talmud writers and so forth.
I, logically conclude that Jesus’ claims are true.