9. Does the historical Jesus reveal God?

October 16th, 2019

This page in brief ….

Christians believe that Jesus showed us what God is like. If that claim is true, we have a strong reason to believe God really exists.

So in this page we look at three criteria that we might use to evaluate this claim – the historical evidence for Jesus’ life and teachings, the ethics and believability of his teachings, and the evidence that he gave us reliable information about God.

The evidence on this page is coherent with the other evidence we have been examining.

Gurus, prophets and teachers

There have been many great religious and moral teachers, and each of them have something worth hearing. But do any of them provide evidence for the existence of God? Which of them gave us teachings we can trust?

I suggest there are several criteria we might require to be met before we can reasonably believe what a religious teacher says about God:

  1. History: we would need to see good objective historical evidence that this teacher did indeed give these teachings.
  2. The teachings: we would need to be able to conclude that the teachings are believable, ethical and convincing.
  3. Demonstration: the teacher would need to demonstrate in some way that he or she had access to good information about God, and we could trust what they were saying.

Christians believe Jesus meets these requirements and gives us true knowledge of God. Let’s see how this claims stands up. (References to the sources for all this are given at the end.)

I will also consider, briefly, other religious teachers. If any of them plausibly give evidence for God’s existence, then that adds strength to this reason to believe in God.

Jesus in history

To assess whether Jesus meets the historical requirement, we need to check the conclusions of secular historians, who treat the New Testament like any other historical source. Most historians conclude we can know a lot about Jesus (see the links below for references to support these facts):

He really lived, and died by crucifixion

There are virtually no historians who disagree with this. It is very unlikely that all the information we have about Jesus could have been invented, and just as unlikely that anyone would have invented the story of his execution. He grew up in a small Galilean village, and was crucified by the Roman army as a rebel leader when he was in his thirties.

Jesus was known as a travelling teacher and healer

However sceptical we moderns may be about healing miracles, few historians doubt he was widely known as a teacher (rabbi) and healer. The stories of his healings are almost unprecedented in his time – historians Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz say: “Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus.” Other reputed healers used complex rituals, but Jesus is reported to have healed with a word.

Secular scholars take the miracle stories seriously, and many (christian, Jewish and atheist) believe Jesus really did cure or heal people, and that he had unusual natural or supernatural powers (see Did Jesus really perform miracles).

Distinctive teachings

Jesus engaged in discussions and arguments about how to live as God’s people, and generally took a line that valued people (especially the poor and suffering) over strict observance of Jewish law. Many Jews of his day were hoping God would send a Messiah (an anointed king) who would free them from the Romans who occupied their land and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus did and said things that led people to believe he was the Messiah, but he cautioned them that God’s kingdom wasn’t built on violence, but on peace (shalom) and humility.

Resurrection?

The most amazing claim of the New Testament is that, after his execution and burial, God raised Jesus to life again. Most historians are reluctant to pass judgment on the reality of this event (they say it is outside their expertise as historians), but it seems most believe that shortly after his death his tomb was known to not contain his body, and that his followers had some visionary experience where they believed they saw him alive again.

Early belief about Jesus

It seems to be generally accepted that any claim Jesus may have made to be divine was veiled and not much understood during his life. But not long after his death, presumably because of their belief in his resurrection, his followers began to worship him alongside God. This was a big step for monotheistic Jews, and so they came to believe he was indeed divine, an incarnation of God, though historians are not fully agreed on how long it took for this belief to develop.

Jesus in history indeed

So we can see that Jesus meets the historical requirement. We know enough about him to make a judgment about his teachings.

Teachings

Jesus was a Jew of his time, and entered into many of the contemporary controversies and discussions. In most cases he took a more liberal rather than legalistic view.

Jesus and the poor

Jesus was definitely on the side of the poor and marginalised. He was rare among rabbis in associating with people considered outcasts by the religious. Jewish culture saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, but Jesus said God’s blessing was specially with the poor, and that materialism was a major barrier to knowing God.

Jesus and women

There are several incidents in the Gospels where Jesus upheld the dignity of women against the endemic patriarchy of his day. Unusually for an itinerant rabbi, women as well as men accompanied him in his travels.

Morality vs Law

Jesus downplayed the numerous rules and religious observances of pious Jews, urging greater attention to justice and mercy. He turned the external morality of the Old Testament Law and Jewish custom into more stringent matters of the heart and attitude. “Do not kill” became “do not hate”. “Do not commit adultery” became “do not lust”.

Forgiveness and non-violence

Some of Jesus’ strongest words were directed against violence, revenge and hatred. He taught that forgiveness of those who offend us is a necessary part of being one of his followers, and that his disciples should love and forgive even their enemies.

The centrality of love

Love for God and love for neighbour were Jesus’ two priorities and commands. This sort of love wasn’t just an emotion, but a settled attitude of caring for, and wanting the best for, others.

A teacher for the masses

Jesus mostly spoke to uneducated working people, and his teachings have a characteristic simplicity. Many were presented in simple stories (parables) or in pithy sayings and aphorisms, making them memorable to his audience.

A great ethical teacher?

Many of Jesus’ teachings weren’t original, but his teachings tended to have a new twist. Often they were deeper and more about attitude than external behaviour. Many of them still fit well into our postmodern culture. It is little wonder that Jesus is seen by many, even those who don’t believe him to be divine, as being one of the world’s great ethical teachers.

A revealer of God?

Most historians agree that Jesus was cryptic about his status as prophet, teacher and perhaps Messiah (the Jewish king sent by God). But there are many places where his statements reveal deep claims to reveal God and speak on God’s behalf. Here are just a few:

  • He said the reign of God on earth was beginning with him, he would judge the world and his disciples would reign with him in the life to come.
  • He claimed a special relationship with God as “the son”. “Son of God” was not a divine claim in Judaism, but Jesus claimed more, e.g. Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
  • Jesus used Old Testament concepts and language which originally were understood as referring to God or a divine figure, and applied them to himself, e.g. son of Man, King David’s Lord, “coming on the clouds of heaven” and sheltering people under his wings.
  • He claimed his teachings had greater authority than the Old Testament Law which had God’s authority. For example, he replaced the Law’s command for justice with his command to forgive, and he said he was Lord of the Sabbath and could set aside the fifth Commandment to keep the Sabbath.
  • He said things that only God, or an eternal divine being, could say. He forgave peoples’ sins (forgiveness is God’s prerogative) and said his words would endure forever and those who followed his words would endure.

The beliefs of the first followers of Jesus, spelt out in the gospel of John and the rest of the New Testament, show that they understood these claims as meaning Jesus was divine and really did reveal God to us.

Demonstration

This is obviously the most important criterion for assessing Jesus as a possible revelation of God. Did he give believable reasons to trust his knowledge of, and his teaching about, God?

His character

Jesus is widely respected as a great ethical teacher, and we have seen this is justified. He valued truth and spoke honestly, even to the powerful, and even when it led to his death. It is hard to read the gospels and not respect him.

It is hard to believe such a man was not telling the truth. It is hard to believe he didn’t believe what he said.

His teachings and implicit claims

As we have seen, while Jesus used cryptic language to describe his relationship with God, so many of his words and actions show that he saw himself as being “above” his hearers and representing God to them.

Did Jesus tell the truth in this? Did he invent these ideas, or was he imagining them? Again, I think it is hard to believe that a person of his integrity and moral values was anything other than speaking and demonstrating truth.

His miracles

Jesus alleged miracles were unique. No-one else of his time performed so many miracles and using his own authority (i.e. not invoking some other authority). And no other miracles are so well attested historically, in so many independent and non-legendary sources so close to the event.

If you are open to the possibility that God exists, these miracles are surely among the most believable ever. And if people really were healed by Jesus, then that is surely a vindication of his status as God’s representative on earth.

His resurrection

The resurrection is the miracle claim par excellence. Again, the historical evidence is good – several independent accounts and no other really plausible explanation. It appears that the majority of scholars, christian or otherwise, accept the historical evidence that Jesus was crucified and buried, that his tomb was soon after known to be empty, and that his followers saw some sort of vision or appearance of him in the days after his burial.

If Jesus was divine, then it is appropriate that death couldn’t hold him down. If he indeed rose to life, then his claims to represent God are strengthened. If we reject the reality of the resurrection, then it will be more on philosophical grounds (the assumption that the supernatural cannot happen) than on historical.

His impact

Although he was a humble and obscure carpenter and itinerant rabbi in a backwater of the ancient world, Jesus has become perhaps the most famous and influential person who ever lived. In the centuries following his death and apparent resurrection, his followers spread their beliefs about him across the Roman Empire, something that would have been hard to predict. Today a third of the world identifies as his followers, and many others respect him as a prophet or teacher.

If he was indeed God’s representative, then this is understandable; if he wasn’t, it is harder to explain.

Is this enough?

Those who have a strong belief that there is no God will likely not be convinced by this evidence. But I believe it because I trust the historians who tell us the gospels give us a reasonably accurate portrait of Jesus, and I trust the gospel writers, especially Luke, that they have told us the truth. Thus I am led to the conviction that Jesus indeed told the truth, and he really was God’s representative on earth.

And therefore, that God really does exist.

Other gurus, other teachers

I have looked briefly at other major religious teachers across the world – Baha’u’llah, the Buddha, K’ung Fu-tzu (Confucius), Muhammed, Mahavira, Moses, Zarathustra, Guru Nanak and Lao-Tzu. My aim here isn’t to make a judgment on the truth or otherwise of their religions, but simply to assess how they meet the three criteria I began with.

History: It turns out that many of them and their teachings cannot be reliably assessed historically. For many of them, the historical documentation is scanty and far removed from when they are believed to have lived, and we can’t be sure the stories and teachings came from one person and are not legendary. There is good historical evidence for the most recent teachers (Muhammed, Guru Nanak and Baha’u’llah) but none of the rest can compare with the evidence available for Jesus.

Teachings: The eastern religious leaders (the Buddha, Confucius, Mahavira, Lao-Tzu and Guru Nanak) didn’t say a lot about God, so their teachings cannot be used to support an argument for God’s existence. Some taught detachment from the world, a concept most of us might find problematic. Most of the others gave teachings about God and ethics that would be more familiar to most people who will read this – a loving but just God, and a bunch of commands and principles we should live by. Valuable and true as much of these teachings may be, I don’t see anything that surpasses Jesus’ concern for the poor and oppressed, his emphasis on inner intention over rules, or his teachings about forgiveness and love for neighbour and enemy.

Demonstration: I honestly cannot see that any of these leaders offered any demonstration of the supernatural that stands up to historical scrutiny, in the way Jesus did.

The name above all names?

Worthy as many of these teachers and gurus undoubtedly were, none of them meets the three criteria with any historical certainty and with an adequate demonstration of their authority to teach about God. Those who think otherwise are free to make their case, but I can only conclude that the argument for the existence of God is best based on Jesus.

The keystone argument?

If we follow the consensus of historians, we are really only left with two conclusions about Jesus.

  1. Either he really was divine, God’s representative on earth bringing a new stage in God’s interaction with the human race. And so able to give us confidence that God is really there.
  2. Or he was a religious and ethical teacher, one in a long line of “prophets”, who nevertheless failed in his aim of reforming Judaism. As such, his teachings about God may or may not be true, but he gives us, two millennia later, little confidence that he could speak with any authority about God.

I think the first option stands up better than the second, for the reasons discussed above. The first option makes sense of all the facts better than the second does.

But equally importantly, this option sits well with all the reasons we’ve considered so far. The God Jesus showed us and taught about:

  • created the world for us to live in (reasons 1 & 2),
  • created people to be ethical, thoughtful, conscious freely choosing and responsible beings (reasons 3-6), and
  • chooses to reveal himself to people in many different ways (reasons 7 & 8).

If we believe the evidence Jesus offers, all the other evidence fits together. The whole picture is coherent.

And we still have 3 more reasons to go!

Read more

Graphic: Christ Carrying the Cross, by El Greco (1541-1614), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and taken from Wikipedia.

2 Comments

  1. They’re still to come. I’m writing #10 right now – should be done in the next couple of days. I’m pleased you’re interested. Thanks.

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