I often meet people who are surprised to discover that Jesus was a real person. But not believing Jesus existed is kind of the historical equivalent of denying the moon landing. As biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who is not a Christian, explains, ‘virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins agrees that Jesus really existed’. Plus, his vast and lasting impact on humanity is, empirically speaking, incontrovertible: Christianity is the largest religion in the world with over 2.4 billion across the world, the majority of whom now live in Africa, South America, and Asia.
Jesus himself came from that part of the world that touches Africa, Asia and Europe. My colleague, Abdu Murray, says that, as a Middle Easterner, every time he reads the stories of Jesus a smile crawls across his face because the aphorisms sound so much like those his relatives use; and he wonders how Christianity has come to be viewed as a Western, white religion, when the Bible’s Eastern tang is so pungent.
Even among those who are not Christians, Christ’s teaching is often acknowledged to be the greatest teaching ever to fall from the lips of a human being: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. Do to others what you would have them do to you. Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek.’
Albert Einstein, who was not a Christian, once said in an interview:
“No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
Even Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have remarked that ‘between [Jesus] and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires; but upon what foundation did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded an empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.
Jesus’ inglorious ending should have spelt the complete disintegration of any movement he was trying to bring about
This incredible and unequalled level of historical impact surely requires an explanation. Especially when we bear in mind that this first century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth wasn’t wealthy, wasn’t powerful, never travelled that far from home, and was killed when he was only 33 years old. Executed in the most humiliating fashion possible, hung naked on a cross to die in full public spectacle. In first-century Middle East’s shame and honour culture, this inglorious ending should have spelt the complete disintegration of any movement he was trying to bring about. And yet, 2,000 years later, we continue to speak of historical events in terms of what happened before him (‘BC’) and after him (‘AD’).
Something truly extraordinary must have happened after his death to explain all this. To which the response of Jesus’ disciples was: ‘something truly extraordinary did happen. He rose from the dead. We witnessed it with our own eyes’.
Other religious leaders taught people a truth to believe, Jesus said, ‘I am the truth’
Someone may respond to this claim by saying, “OK sure, I am willing to concede that Jesus existed and made a big impact. But there’s no need to get all supernatural, claiming Jesus performed miracles, or rose from the dead. Why can’t we just say he was a good moral teacher, who did some good moral things, and leave it at that?”
Well, the appropriate answer here is that we can’t do that because Jesus himself won’t let us. Whereas other religious leaders taught people a way to live, Jesus said, ‘I am the way’. Whereas other religious leaders taught people a truth to believe, Jesus said, ‘I am the truth’. And while other religious leaders taught people how to live a fulfilled life, Jesus said. ‘I am the life.’ While others religious leaders claimed their words to be the most important in the world, Jesus claimed that by his word he made the whole world.
If anyone else were to make these claims, we would judge them either mad or megalomaniac, but certainly not as moral. And yet, as we’ve seen, Christ’s teachings are not the teachings of a mad man. And nor are his actions those of a bad man. His disciples lived with him for three years and never once saw him do wrong. And even when he was being tortured to death on a cross, the words that came out of his mouth were: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Who was this man? This man we think we know because we’ve heard his name, and seen his image, a hundred times, a thousand times, in movies and cartoons and Christmas cards. But beyond the caricatures, who was he, really – this first century Jewish carpenter who changed history?
Whatever we think, we think something. Maybe, it’s time to think again?
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