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Builders of Faith Explorer I:  Exploring Bible Truth

Lesson 1—Is Jesus Really God?

SPECIAL NOTE:  The purpose for Lesson #1 is to show that Jesus really lived in the 1st century A.D. in Judea and that it is more reasonable to believe that He is God than to draw any other conclusion.  In doing so, we believe that it is important to show what ancient historians said and how a trained historian would test the New Testament documents for authenticity and reliability.  This means that there are fewer Bible texts in this lesson.  However, please be assured that all future lessons will focus the large majority of its questions on Bible texts.  This series is, after all, entitled “Explorer I:  Exploring Bible Truth”.

 

1. Are there any Jewish sources outside the New Testament for the belief that a man called Jesus lived among the Jews in Palestine in the 1st century A.D.?

“…when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority.]  Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or some of his companions;] and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned….”  Josephus, Flavius.  The Complete Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, 1981, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Ch. 9, Verse 1.

Answer:  Josephus was a first-century A.D. non-Christian Jewish historian.  In this passage, he clearly refers to the death of James, whom he called the “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ….”

 

2. Does Josephus make any other references to Jesus?

“Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works,—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”  Josephus, Flavius.  The Complete Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, 1981, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Ch. 3, Verse 3.

Answer:  Scholars who have studied all available manuscripts (handwritten) of Josephus’ works see no reason to doubt the authenticity of the basic verse.  However, since we know Josephus was not a Christian, those words in italics were probably added by Christian writers.  That is to be expected since it was primarily Christians who handed down these manuscripts.  In any case, even without those italicized words, Josephus obviously knew that a Jewish man called Jesus lived in first-century Palestine and was condemned to the cross by Pilate.  And this testimony confirms what Christians have always taught.

Special Note:  There are also numerous, but highly controversial passages in the Jewish Talmud that may well refer to Jesus.  But they are so disputed that we will not quote them here.

 

3. Is there a credible non-Christian Roman source that speaks of the Christian Jesus?

“Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.  Christus, from whom they got their name, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor….”  Cornelius Tacitus, Annals XV.44, Quoted by F.F. Bruce in his The New Testament Documents:  Are They Reliable?  Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975, p. 117.

Answer:  Tacitus was the most famous ancient Roman historian.  His testimony here concerns Nero’s burning of the city of Rome and how he blamed Christians for that fire.  He confirms Josephus’ testimony that the Christian leader was called “Christus” [Christ] and that he was executed by Pontius Pilate.  By the way, we would not expect much mention of Jesus outside Christian circles in those early centuries because Christianity was first viewed as a small part of Judaism, and then became viewed as criminal.  Moreover, the criminal records of ancient Rome have long ago been destroyed.

 

4. Most of the evidence for Jesus’ existence is found in the New Testament.  But how do we evaluate those documents?

Answer:  There are 3 kinds of evidence used by trained historians to evaluate the authenticity and reliability of ancient documents.  Manuscript evidence (handwritten documents) is used to determine if we have essentially the same document in modern times that was originally written (authenticity).  Internal and external evidence are examined to determine if the contents of the document are reliably accurate (reliability).

 

5. How many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament documents do scholars have available to study?  And how does that compare with other ancient documents?

Answer:  There are between 5,000 and 6,000 manuscripts of the New Testament documents available for study by scholars.  Most of these are complete or near-complete books.  The closest ancient document to the New Testament ones are of the Greek poet Homer’s Iliad, of which there are 643 manuscripts.  After Iliad, the number of manuscripts for other ancient works falls off dramatically.

 

6. How old are the earliest known New Testament documents, and how does that compare with the Iliad or other ancient manuscripts?

Answer:  The oldest known New Testament manuscripts have been dated to the 4th century A.D., compared with the 13th century A.D. for the oldest known manuscript of the Iliad, for example.  The latest estimated time that Homer lived is the 7th century B.C., which means the oldest manuscript of the Iliad is at least 1,800 years after he wrote it.  It should also be noted that additional fragments of virtually all the New Testament documents have been dated to the early 3rd century A.D.  Moreover, there is an instructional manuscript that paraphrases most of the four gospels that has been dated to the first half of the 2nd century A.D.  And beyond that is the fact that several early Apostolic Fathers whose manuscripts date to about A.D. 100 quote or make obvious allusions to nearly all of the New Testament books.  There can be reasonable doubt that the original New Testament documents were all written in the 1st century A.D., when the events and persons recorded about actually occurred and lived.  And the fact that historians generally expect at least 100 years to pass by before legendary and obvious fanciful material to creep into literature means that we can safely assume that what the New Testament says about Jesus is quite accurate.

 

7. How do these many New Testament manuscripts compare to each other in content?

Answer:  We should expect at least minor differences because scholars literally copied from one manuscript while creating their new manuscript.  There were no copy machines or printing presses in those days.  And that’s what we find.  But all scholars who have studied these manuscripts, fragments, and quotations among early Apostolic Fathers have concluded that no significant errors were made, and no doctrinal teachings have been affected.  Therefore, there is more evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament books than for any other work of antiquity.

 

8. Does the authenticity of the New Testament say anything about its accuracy?

Answer:  The evidence confirms that they were all of 1st century A.D. origin.  That means that many different people who had undoubtedly witnessed some of the alleged events and heard Jesus’ words described in the New Testament gospels would still be living after the circulation of most of those manuscripts.  And the complete absence of documents refuting any of those events or words of Jesus strongly suggests that the New Testament books represent accurate history.

 

9. What is Internal evidence, and what does it tell us about the reliability of the New Testament?

Answer:  Internal evidence is evidence contained within the New Testament documents themselves.  Scholars look primarily for factual inconsistencies and excessively glowing accounts of the character and actions of the author.  If some alleged inconsistencies have other reasonable explanations, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the document.  Careful study has revealed no glaring factual inconsistencies.  And not only do the New Testament writers not write glowingly of themselves, they often portray themselves and/or other apostles of Jesus with some of their glaring human weaknesses.  Even Jesus, although highly praised and worshiped as God, is presented in some key situations in ways that unreliable authors would never have done.

“Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists [gospel writers], they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed—the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial,…the references of some auditors to his [Christ’s] possible insanity,…his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them.”  Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3 (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1944), 557.

 

10. Is there other Internal evidence that supports the reliability of the New Testament?

Answer:  Yes.  Further internal evidence can be found in the nature of the differences among the gospel writers.  Even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that each author tells the story of Jesus in his own unique order, selects which episodes to present and which to omit altogether, and provides details that are different from the other gospel writers.  Indeed, the fact that there are differences in details itself demonstrates that these writers did not get together and invent the Jesus story, or else they would have made certain that every detail among their accounts was identical.

 

11. What is External evidence, and what does it tell us about the reliability of the New Testament?

Answer:  The major issue in examining external evidence is to determine whether or not other sources of information validate the historical accuracy of a document.  The best external sources are widely accepted historical documents and artifacts uncovered by archaeologists.  Although not every question of historical detail has yet been answered, neither has any external evidence proved any of the New Testament’s history to be erroneous.  Indeed, archaeological discoveries from the 19th century onward have verified countless references in the New Testament without refuting a single one.

 

12. But doesn’t the New Testament speak of miracles and resurrections?  How can we accept a document as accurate when these things are said to have happened?

Answer:  It is indeed quite reasonable to be more skeptical of supernatural accounts like miracles and resurrections than of other material.  But we can suspend our judgment about such things for the moment until we can establish whether or not Jesus is God.  For if He is God, then supernatural events present no problem to us.  At this point, the manuscript evidence and the internal and external evidence speak loud and clear to the reality that Jesus lived on earth in 1st century A.D. Palestine.  There can be no reasonable doubt about that historical fact.

 

13. Did Jesus ever accept the title of “Son of God”?

A. Matthew 16:16-17:  “Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’  Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.’”—Jesus clearly accepted that divine title.

B. John 1:49-51:  “Nathaniel answered and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!’  Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe?  You will see greater things than these.’  And He said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”—Jesus here approved of Nathaniel’s belief.

 

14. Did Jesus accept the title of “God”?

“Then He [Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’  And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’  Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”  John 20:27-29.

Answer:  The context of this passage is after Jesus’ alleged resurrection.  And Jesus approved Thomas’ declaration that He is God.

 

15. Did Jesus claim to be the “I Am”, and was that a claim to be God?

“Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’  Then they took up stones to throw at Him….”  John 8:58-59.  “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’  And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  Exodus 3:14.

Answer:  Jesus did indeed claim to be the “I Am”.  And both the Exodus 3:14 text and the reaction of the Jewish leaders to Jesus’ statement mean that Jesus was claiming to be God.

 

16. Did Jesus approve of people worshiping Him?

A. Matthew 14:33:  “Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him [Jesus], saying, ’Truly You are the Son of God.’”—This short text shows us that Jesus accepted worship as God.

B. Matthew 28:9-10:  “And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, ‘Rejoice!’  So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.  Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.  Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.’”—Once again Jesus accepted worship.

 

17. Did Jesus claim equality with God by certain direct statements?

A. John 14:9:  “…He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”—Here Jesus claims equality with God the Father.

B. John 10:30:  “I [Jesus] and My Father are one.’”—Jesus could not have been plainer.

Special Note:  Remember that earlier in this lesson, we showed evidence that there was not sufficient time from the events themselves to the oldest known sources about those events for legendary, mythical material to have corrupted the gospels.  Therefore, the non-Christian critics who often claim that it was only later followers of Jesus that inserted statements in the gospels to make Jesus claim to be God are clearly wrong.  So Jesus, in fact, did claim to be God.

 

18. Therefore, can Jesus actually be accepted as merely a great moral teacher?

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]:  ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”  C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1972), 55-56.

Answer:  C. S. Lewis was a former skeptic of Christianity who later was converted to it and became one of the best-known Christian apologists—defenders of the faith.  His eloquence in the statement above outlines why we have only three options when considering Jesus:  (1) He was a lunatic; (2) He was the world’s greatest liar; or (3) He is God just as He claimed to be.

 

19. Is there any evidence that Jesus was a lunatic or mentally unbalanced in any way?

A. If Jesus had been delusional about His identity, His closest disciples would have seen a sufficient amount of strange and illogical behavior to alert them that something was very wrong.  And if they had witnessed such behavior, why would they have tried to conceal it?  Surely, they would not have quoted Jesus’ critics as saying Jesus had demons or was crazy, as was done in Matthew 9:34; John 7:20; John 8:48, 52; John 10:20.  And neither would Jesus have attracted such large crowds during most of His ministry.

B. The profound statements uttered by Jesus, and the effect those statements and His life had, and still has, on others exists as remarkable testimony, not only to His sanity, but also to His great wisdom.  One psychiatrist drew the following conclusions about Jesus’ mental health:  

“If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified of psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental hygiene…and if you were to have these unadulterated bits of pure scientific knowledge concisely expressed by the most capable of living poets, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount.  And it would suffer immeasurably through comparison.  For nearly two thousand years the Christian world has been holding in its hands the complete answer to its restless and fruitless yearnings…the blueprint for successful human life with optimism, mental health, and contentment.”  J. T. Fisher and L. S. Hawley, A Few Buttons Missing (Philadelphia, PA:  Lippincott, 1951), 273.

 

20. Is there any evidence that Jesus was the world’s greatest liar, or a liar at all?

A. In His many dealings with His Jewish critics, Jesus had plenty of motive to lie or shade the truth, for it could have easily delayed His arrest, trial, and execution, if not prevented it altogether.  Indeed, if one accepts this idea that Jesus was a great liar about who He was, then we have to believe that He willingly accepted His own execution rather than retract His claims of Deity.

B. Even none of Jesus’ critics accused Him of lying about anything except about His claims to being God.  When your critics don’t accuse you of being a liar, that speaks volumes to your character.

C. Why would a lying con man choose Judea as the primary place to gather a following.  The Jewish religion was, and is, so fiercely monotheistic, most of them could hardly be expected to embrace a man walking on earth claiming to be God.  Almost any other culture would have been preferable.  Moreover, rabbinical Judaism did not expect the coming Messiah to be God, but only a male descendant of King David.  So if Jesus were a lying con man, He would have been one of the dumbest would-be Messiahs in history!

 

21. Then what is the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the evidence concerning Jesus’ claim to be God?

Answer:  It is precisely because Jesus made such an outlandish claim that He is God that Christianity is the easiest world religion to test for its truthfulness.  After examining the evidence that the New Testament documents almost certainly reflect accurate history—suspending judgment on the alleged miracles for the moment—we are really left with just one conclusion:  Jesus is really God!  Suddenly the miracles recorded in the New Testament are no problem…for God can certainly suspend His own laws of nature when He occasionally wishes to do so.

 

Quiz for Lesson #1—Is Jesus Really God?

1. What did the first half of this lesson tell us about Jesus? (2)

  A Jewish historian named Josephus confirms Jesus’ existence in the 1st century A.D.

  There are no reliable Roman sources that speak of Jesus.

  Most of the evidence for Jesus is found in the New Testament documents.

Answer

A Jewish historian named Josephus confirms Jesus’ existence in the 1st century A.D.
Most of the evidence for Jesus is found in the New Testament documents.

 

2. Which of the following statements correctly identify what historians use to evaluate ancient documents like the New Testament documents? (3)

  Manuscript evidence

  Printed evidence

  Internal evidence

  External evidence

Answer

Manuscript evidence
Printed evidence
Internal evidence
External evidence

 

3. What kind of evidence is used to evaluate the authenticity of an ancient document? (1)

  Internal evidence

  External evidence

  Manuscript evidence

Answer

Manuscript evidence

 

4. What kind of evidence is used to evaluate the reliability of an ancient document? (2)

  Manuscript evidence

  Internal evidence

  External evidence

Answer

Internal evidence
External evidence

 

5. Approximately how many manuscripts of New Testament documents are available for study by the experts? (1)

  There are between 5,000 and 6,000 such manuscripts.

  There are between 50,000 and 60,000 such manuscripts.

  There are a little more than 4,000 such manuscripts.

Answer

There are between 5,000 and 6,000 such manuscripts.

 

6. Jesus accepted the title of “Son of God” but not as simply “God”. (1)

  True

  False

Answer

False

 

7. Which of the following ways did Jesus claim to be God? (3)

  He accepted the title of the “Son of God”.

  He accepted the title of “God”.

  He claimed to be the great “I will”.

  He allowed people to worship Him.

Answer

He accepted the title of the “Son of God”.
He accepted the title of “God”.
He allowed people to worship Him.

 

8. Can Jesus be accepted as merely a great moral teacher? (1)

  Yes

  No

Answer

No

 

9. If Jesus was not really God, what are the only two other options left? (2)

  Jesus was the world’s greatest liar.

  Jesus was a lunatic.

  Jesus was simply mistaken about who He was.

Answer

Jesus was the world’s greatest liar.
Jesus was a lunatic.

 

10. Jesus is indeed God and should be worshiped and obeyed as such. (1)

  True

  False

Answer

True