Responding to Competing Pictures of Jesus  by Dr. Robert Kurka.  Presented at the International Christian Evidence Conference 6/13/2009


2009 International Apologetics Conference                    Dr. Robert C. Kurka

Houston, TX                                                  Professor of Theology and Church in Culture

June 12-13, 2009                                                       Lincoln Christian Seminary



                      "Responding to Competing Pictures of Jesus"


According to New Testament scholars, Darrell Bock, and Daniel Wallace, we live in a culture of "TWO JESUS STORIES"-CHRISTIANITY and JESUSANITY.

     In Christianity, we have the central idea that Jesus is the "Christ" or "Anointed One"-the second person of the Triune Godhead, who became fully human, ministered for three years, announcing that the Kingdom of God was now here in word and deed, and fulfilled his mission to secure the once-for-all forgiveness of sins in his death and bodily resurrection. In this latter event, the Father has vindicated the Son and enthroned him at his side while the third person, the Holy Spirit, is poured out upon all who believe in Jesus. CHRIST is clearly, the one and only way to God (Jn 14:6).

     In Jesusanity, we have an "alternative story" about Jesus-a "popular picture view of Jesus"- in which he is still the center of the story, but only as a prophet or teacher of religious wisdom. He is still Jesus of Nazareth, but he is not the WAY but merely a human who instructs us in the ways of God-an enlightened teacher who leads us along our journey with God. He dies a cruel death on a cross-but only as a misunderstood martyr, and is "alive" merely in the sense, that the "memory" of such a profound and courageous leader does not easily go away. [1]

     Historically, the notion of a biblical worldview has been constructed around the "Christianity story," since at the center of the Bible’s creation-fall-redemption-consummation drama is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ at the cross and empty tomb. Simply put, without this Jesus, there is no unique, biblical worldview.

     Yet, it is the Jesus of Jesusanity who constantly meets us in the world of contemporary scholarship, novels, television, and movies. A few examples:

     1) In Catholic scholar, John Dominic Crossan’s influential book, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1992), we are told that Jesus was a peasant prophet with an alternative social vision that upset the prevailing social, economic, and political structures of his day. He was crucified for his "rebellion," and his body was buried in a shallow grave only to be devoured by wild dogs.

   2) In Dan Brown’s 2003 best-selling novel (and its 2006 movie version), The Da Vinci Code, we are told: "Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea."[2] He was also married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a child.

   3) In March, 2007, the Discovery Channel televised a documentary that strongly suggested that the burial place of Jesus of Nazareth and his family had been found outside Jerusalem, claiming the support of statistical, historical, archaeological, and DNA evidence.

  4)  Former evangelical, Bart Ehrman publishes a 2005 best-seller, Misquoting Jesus, in which he argues that the lack of original New Testament manuscripts, and the corresponding presence of "only error-ridden copies…centuries removed from the originals" undermines any notion that we have access to the genuine words and actions of the historical Jesus.[3] Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), now refers to himself as a "happy agnostic."

  5) Early Christianity was marked by the presence of many, diverse and competing Christianities, among them various strains of Gnosticism that viewed Jesus as an avatar, or voice of the oversoul whose mission was to teach humans to find the sacred spark within. These "Lost Christianities" (Ehrman’s term) were subsequently subjugated by the more powerful perspective of a developing, catholic church. According to Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, this Gnostic tradition would have made Christianity a more appealing, rational, tolerant, and inclusive system of belief than the narrow, restrictive, and "Jesus-only," religion it has become, today.[4]

  5) Special Apologetics conference guest, Robert M. Price, a Jesus Seminar member (as well as a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Seminary!), argues that the Seminar is itself far too optimistic in its assessment that 18 percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels can be traced back to Jesus. Price considers the evidence so weak for the historical Jesus that we really cannot know anything for sure about him. He even entertains the very idiosyncratic position (at least, in contemporary circles of historians) that there never was a historical Jesus! [5]

     These are but a few of our culture’s "proofs" that the genuine Jesus is the figure of Jesusanity rather than traditional Christianity. We can not escape them!

     As we seek to respond to the above, "Popular Pictures of Jesus," session, there are a number of "worldview tools" that can enable us critically and confidently meet and evaluate these contemporary portraits. We will group our examination around FOUR KEY QUESTIONS: (1) What is the worldview(s) that lies behind Jesusanity?; (2) What can we really know about the historical Jesus?; (3) How trustworthy are the four canonical Gospels (especially in comparison to the Gnostic versions)?; and (4) How do we present the Jesus of Christianity to today’s skeptical culture?     


•I.                   The Non-Theistic Worldview of "Jesusanity"

•·        The Jesus presented in the New Testament was not virtually uncontested until the eighteenth century -due to the rise of science.

•·        Utilizing the deistic worldview generated from the cosmology of Isaac Newton (a believer), a new movement in biblical criticism arose that challenged the supernatural character of Scripture, especially in its presentation of Jesus.

•·        The primitive ("supernatural") worldview of the gospel writers "colored" their understanding of historical events. They could not distinguish fact from fable, or natural occurrences from "magic."

•·        The critics’ conclusion: Only modern-day historians and scholars are truly able to assess history honestly and objectively-due to our "enlightened view" of scientific (cause/effect) reality. Thus, the Christ whom we encounter in the canonical gospels is essentially the creation of the "early church"-especially his claims of divinity (e.g., "I Am" sayings in John) and the story (ies) of his miracles and bodily resurrection. These "credentials of divinity" are actually, well-intentioned, fabrications that served to provide explanations of these Christians’ new-found faith, as well as respond to conflicts in the early church communities.

•·        Consequently, the application of this non-theistic worldview (deism, and in the past two centuries, more of an outright, naturalism) to the New Testament has resulted in a "scholarly repudiation" of the Jesus of historic, orthodox, Christianity in favor of the Jesus of "Jesusanity" who is merely a human being who never claimed to be God, and attempted to establish a purely, "this-worldly" kingdom. This anti-supernatural bias, then, determines what these scholars will accept as acceptable and true. Furthermore, our contemporary, postmodern worldview takes this "naturalized Jesus," and in keeping with its relativistic spirit, presents him as merely one religious teacher among many, offering only one of a myriad of possible paths to the divine.

•II.                The Historical Jesus: Even Just a "Few Facts" Lead to the Jesus of the Orthodox, Christian Faith

•·        It must be admitted even by the most devoted conservative believers that Jesus never directly claimed to be God. (Even the disputed "I Am" sayings are more indirect than direct).

•·        But the four gospels are full of less obvious, implicit Christological claims that apparently brought about the confessions, "creeds," and worship of the first century church. (It must be remembered that in order of composition, the gospels were pre-dated by the epistles-possibly by as much as 30-40 years!).

•·        Some of Jesus’ implicit claims (generally accepted as factual by even the most severe critics) include:

•1)      Jesus’ independent approach to the law of Moses

•2)      His feeding of the 5,000, which led to an attempt to make him king

•3)      His interpretation of his own miracles

•4)      His announcing that the "kingdom of God" (i.e., God’s salvific reign) as present in ministry

•5)      His choosing of twelve disciples (rather than being sought ought by them)

•6)      His use of the title, "Son of Man" (see especially the high priest’s reaction in Mk 14:61-64-"blasphemy")

•7)      His style of teaching ("authority"-Mt 7:28,29)

•8)      His use of  "Amen" ("truly, truly")

•9)      His belief that he determined people’s eternal destiny before God

•10)  His use of "Abba"

•11)  His distinguishing of himself from his contemporaries (John the Baptist, Pharisees, revolutionaries, and even his own disciples)

•12)  His understanding that it was necessary for him to die; to undergo a "baptism"  in order to reconcile God and people

•13)  His sense of mission to the whole of Israel, especially her "undesirables"

•14)  His raising messianic expectations through controversy

•15)  His death on the cross (an execution reserved for one judged to be seditious [Romans] and/or a "deceiver" by the Jews (cf. Dt 13:1-13; 21:22).[6]


•·        Of course, the key demonstration of Jesus’ divinity lies in his bodily resurrection from the dead. But our critics, by virtue of their non-theistic worldview, will rule out such a supreme, supernatural event. But there are THREE INDISPUTABLE FACTS that cannot be overlooked:

•1)      Fact of the Empty Tomb. Jesus was buried in the personal tomb of a well-known Jewish leader, Joseph of Arimathea. On the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ burial place was found empty by some women followers. At the time of the writing of Matthew’s gospel (c. 70 CE), Jewish anti-Christian propaganda admitted that the tomb was empty (cf. Mt 28:11-15).

•2)      Fact of the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus. On multiple occasions and various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead (cf. 1 Co 15:3-5). These do not "prove" his resurrection, but they must be accounted for.

•3)      Fact of the Early Church. The "good news" of a suffering/resurrected Messiah is theologically scandalous to both Jewish and pagan audiences (cf. 1 Co 1:18-25). This message birthed a "new" phenomenon, the Christian Church.


•·        Finally, the Worship of the Early Christian Church (as repeatedly seen in the first-century [and pre-Gospels’ epistles and Acts] reveals an exalted Christology. In the church’s hymns (e.g., Php 2:6-11); confessions (e.g., Ro 10:9) and practices (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), Jesus is worshiped as God (cf. 1 Co 8:5-6). This would be the worst kind of idolatry if Jesus was not equal to the Old Testament God. In fact, why would any devoted Jew move to an understanding of the oneness of God (Dt 6:4-5) to something like the complex and potentially confusing, Christian doctrine of the Trinity…unless there were compelling reasons to do so? [7]



•III.             How to Spot an Authentic Gospel (as well as a "Fake")

•·        Two keys issues need to be addressed concerning the written sources that serve as the primary basis of our knowledge about Jesus: (1) How can we trust our canonical gospels (New Testament) if we do not have the original manuscripts?; and (2) Are the Gnostic Gospels (e.g., Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Judas, et al) the older, more accurate "biographies" of Jesus?


•·        Are the New Testament Texts Reliable?

•1)      It is true that we do not have the original manuscripts of the NT, but we do have 5700+ Greek manuscripts-a number unparalleled in comparison to other ancient texts. We have complete manuscripts of the NT from as early as 350 CE, and many fragments of books, including a Gospel of John portion dating from 120 CE!

•2)      Since these Greek texts were hand-copied, it is not surprising that are discrepancies among these many manuscripts; Ehrman estimates as many as 400,000. This sounds very alarming, at first, until one ascertains the nature of these variants.  Most of these are simply differences in spelling, word order, or the relationships between nouns and the definite articles-variants that are readily recognizable and unrecognizable in translation.[8] (More than 99 percent of these 400,000 differences fall into this category).[9] Of the remaining one percent, only a few affect our understanding of the biblical text, and none affect any central doctrine of the Christian faith. Ehrman’s claim that "there are lots of significant changes" is a gross exaggeration and one that is not supported by the manuscript evidence.[10] [One example that illustrates the "one percent": The fact that we have so many NT manuscripts, enables us to make the observation that Mk 16:9-20 is probably a later addition to the Gospel, added by a scribe (s) who was troubled by a resurrection narrative concluding with "they were afraid" (v. 8). This well-known variant (noted in virtually every contemporary version) does not tell us anything necessarily false or for that matter, essential to the resurrection; it is simply nothing more than an attempt to "harmonize" with the other three gospels.]

•·        Are the Gnostic Gospels the "Original" Jesus Stories?

•1)      It is general, scholarly consensus, today, that the entire New Testament was written prior to the end of the first century CE (100).[11]

•2)      The Gnostic Gospels, however, cannot be dated much before the middle of the second century (around 150 CE).[12]

•3)      The Gnostic Gospels are clearly dependent upon the four canonical gospels, not the other way around. Craig Evans makes four observations about the well-celebrated, Gospel of Thomas (probably written around 175): (1) Thomas knows many of the NT writings; (2) Thomas contains Gospel material that many scholars consider "late" (i.e., Matthew, Luke, John); (3) Thomas reflects later editing in the gospels; (4) Thomas shows familiarity with traditions unique to Eastern, Syrian, Christianity-traditions that did not emerge until the late second and third centuries.[13] As Evans notes: " The Gospel of Thomas is an esoteric work writing, purporting to record the secret (or "hidden") teachings of Jesus, teachings reserved for those qualified to hear these sayings."[14]

•4)      A few samples of the Gnostic Gospels to illustrate the above points:



                                                   Gospel of Thomas

1 And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these words will not taste death."


4 Jesus say, "A man full of days will not hesitate to ask a child of seven days concerning the place of life, and you will live. For many who are first will be the last and the last will be first, and they will become one and the same."

7 "…Blessed is the lion which man eats, and the lion becomes man; and cursed is the man whom the lion eats…"[15]


                                                    Gospel of Peter (34-42)

Early in the morning of the Sabbath a crowd from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside came in order to see the sealed tomb. Now in the night in which the Lord’s Day dawned, while the soldiers kept guard in pairs in every watch, a loud voice rang out in heaven, and they saw the heavens opened and two men descending from there in great brightness and drawing near the tomb. But that stone which had been placed at the door rolled by itself and withdrew to one side. The tomb opened and both of the young men entered. Then those soldiers, observing these things, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they themselves were on guard) And while they relating what they had seen, again they see three men coming out of the tomb-two of them supporting the, one, and a cross followed them-and the heads of the two reached to heaven, but the head of the one being led by the hand extended above the heavens. And they heard a voice from heaven, saying: "Did you preach to those who slept?" And an answer was heard from the cross: "Yes."[16]

•IV.              You Decide: Lunatic or Lord (Updating C.S. Lewis for the Twenty-first Century)

•·        The Jesus of Jesusanity is simply not a plausible reconstruction of the evidence-biblical, historical, and textual (and experiential).

•·        The Jesus of Jesusanity is the product of a worldview(s) that a priori determines the kind of what kind of Jesus is will allow due to its presuppositions (notably deism, naturalism, and postmodernism).

•·         Based upon the evidence, the "Two Competing Pictures of Christ" are in actuality, the contrasting suggested by C.S. Lewis many years ago: (1) Jesus is a lunatic; or (2) Jesus is, indeed the Lord.

•·        However, we must remember that Jesus made his case in words and actions that cried out "Servant" rather than "Dictator." While he claimed to be the "only way, truth, and life," he did so in a manner that was not arrogant, mean-spirited, flashy, or triumphalistic.

•·        Therefore, as make the case for the Jesus of Christianity, let us do so in the manner of the first Christians who "spoke the word of God boldly… (as) one in heart and mind…shared(ing) everything they had…" (Acts 4:31-32, NIV).


[1] Darrell L. Bock, and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007): 4-5.

[2] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003): 233.


Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperCollins, 2005), 10-11.

[4] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003). This book furthers a thesis that was first advanced in her 1979 work, The Gnostic Gospels (vintage Books/Random House).

[5] Robert M. Price, Deconstructing Jesus (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000), and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (Prometheus books, 2003).

[6]  See Ben Witherington, III, The Christology of Jesus (Fortress Press, 1990), 268.

[7] See Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988).

[8] Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (InterVarsity, 2007), 42-43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 69.

[11] Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (InterVarsity2006), 54-55.

[12] Ibid., 56-57.

[13]) Ibid., 67-68.

[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Evans’ translation, in Ibid., 64.

[16] Evans’ translation, in Ibid., 81-82.

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