Jesus And The Food Court

Finding the real Jesus these days is a bit like trying to choose what to eat at the food court.

I’m sure you’ve been there. It’s Friday night. You are out with your friends to see a movie; you need to grab some dinner on the way and you end up at the food court. You’ve got 20 bucks in your pocket and a bewildering range of options. There’s the healthy sandwich takeaway, the Indian diner, the Chinese restaurant, the kebab shop, the pizza joint, and – of course – the big-name fast-food outlets, along with a bunch of others. Sometimes the choice can be paralysing. Do you go healthy or cheap? The quick bite so you can catch the beginning of the movie or something more satisfying? The same as the rest of the group to keep things easy or what you really want, even though it may slow things down? Pretty quickly, what should be a simple decision becomes complicated because of the range of things on offer.

It is not much different when you start looking for the real Jesus, because there is, these days, a range of different Jesuses on offer. A Google image search turns up plenty of options. There’s the ‘meek and mild’ Jesus of the children’s picture books, the ‘holy’ Jesus of the stained-glass windows, the ‘wise teacher’ Jesus of The Da Vinci Code, the bloodstained Jesus of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the conservative Jesus of the political right and the ‘revolutionary’ Jesus of the radicals. And that’s just a small sample of the huge number of Jesuses on offer.

So, how do we find the real Jesus?

Did Jesus Really Exist?

The first question we need to ask is this: Did Jesus really exist?

Every now and then, you hear people saying that the biographies of Jesus in the Bible are fictitious fabrications – more fairytale than serious history – and that there never was a real person called Jesus. The idea may sound exciting, but it won’t stand up under scrutiny. The thing to notice about this question is that it is an historical question. It is exactly the same as asking ‘Did Adolf Hitler exist?’ or ‘Did Julius Caesar exist?’ Because these are historical questions, the only way to answer them is by looking at the historical evidence.


The Evidence For Jesus

It is certainly true that serious historians reach different conclusions about who Jesus was. In my PhD research in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and in my teaching at the University of Sydney, I have repeatedly been struck by the different ways in which serious historians interpret Jesus. What is even more striking, however, is that no serious ancient historian – whether Jewish, Christian, atheist or whatever – doubts that Jesus existed. Although Jesus’ existence is often questioned in certain corners of the internet and in sensational documentaries, the possibility that Jesus never existed is universally dismissed by those who really know what they are talking about.

The reason for this is quite straightforward. There is simply too much evidence to seriously question Jesus’ existence. Let me give you just a small sample from three different sources.

To begin with, since Jesus lived during the time when the Roman Empire was at its height, the first kind of evidence we have is from Roman writers. One ancient Roman author called Tacitus, who wrote about 80 years after Jesus died, had this to say about him:

Christians derived their name from a man called Christ, who, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. The deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, broke out afresh not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the city of Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.” (Annals 15:44)

Tacitus here gives us some good basic information about Jesus. Jesus, he says, lived in the region of Judea (what today we call Israel/Palestine). He lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. And he was executed under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (26–36 AD). But the really interesting thing about this quote from Tacitus is that he is so obviously opposed to Christianity. He calls it ‘deadly superstition’, ‘evil’, ‘hideous’ and ‘shameful’. Tacitus is clearly no fan of Jesus, ‘the Christ’ or the movement that took its name from him – the ‘Christians’. It is precisely for this reason, however, that Tacitus provides us with such excellent historical evidence. He has no reason to pass on information about Jesus that might support or encourage the spread of Christianity in some way. Yet, the information he does provide fits perfectly with what we find in the Gospels. More on that shortly.

The second kind of evidence we have for Jesus comes from ancient Jewish writers. This is no surprise because Jesus was a Jew by birth. One of these ancient Jewish writers, a historian named Josephus, wrote his book about 60 years after Jesus died. Here is what he said:

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 surprising deeds – 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 to this day.” (Jewish Antiquities18:63–64)

There is some debate about exactly what Josephus wrote about Jesus. Most scholars think that the sections I have placed in square brackets represent later Christian additions to what Josephus originally wrote. But even when we take these sections out, Josephus still reports a body of information about Jesus that fits perfectly with what we have in the Gospels.

Finally, the third source of historical evidence about Jesus comes from the things that Jesus’ earliest followers wrote about him. The most important primary sources are the four Gospels, which I have already mentioned. In addition to these, the New Testament contains a further 23 books, all of which were written in the first 60 years or so after Jesus died, and all of which have something to say about Jesus. Some might object at this point that the Christian writings about Jesus are so obviously biased that we cannot trust them as history. There is more to say about that in a moment. For now, it is enough to notice the simple point that 27 separate books, all talking about a historical person within a generation or two of that person’s life, is extremely good evidence that such a person existed. How else can we explain why all these books were written, or why they all make the same assumption that Jesus actually lived and died in the land of Israel in recent history? As modern readers of these texts, we might decide that we do not trust everything they say about Jesus, but that is a different issue. If we are looking for evidence that Jesus existed, the large number of early Christian books about him has got to be an important factor.

It is true, of course, that even when we put all of this together, there is not as much concrete, physical evidence for Jesus as there is for, say, Julius Caesar. Jesus, after all, didn’t construct roads, mint coins, build cities or start wars! There is, however, more than enough evidence to be entirely confident that he really existed. This is why serious ancient historians – from every different religious perspective – accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure.

The Non-Negotiables

When you put all of this evidence together, you can come up with a pretty good outline of Jesus’ life. Even among the most sceptical non-Christian ancient historians, there is widespread agreement about at least these 7 points:
  1. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish teacher who lived in the land 032 of Palestine.
  2. Jesus lived from about 5BC to AD33.
  3. Jesus taught people about ‘the kingdom of God’.
  4. Jesus was famous for hanging out with ‘sinners’ – the outcasts and the ‘low-lifes’ of the society in which he lived.
  5. Jesus did amazing things that many people considered ‘miraculous’.
  6. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem on a Roman cross while Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of the region.
  7. Jesus’ followers started claiming pretty soon after his death that he had come back to life again.

None of this is religious belief. These are just the bare bones of what ancient historians accept about the historical person called Jesus of Nazareth.

But can we trust the Gospels?

If we want to know more about Jesus, however – more about his teaching about God, his understanding of his own identity and mission, and his vision for life in the world – we need to turn to the four New Testament biographies of Jesus, the four Gospels.

Although the historical reliability of the Gospels has sometimes been questioned, there are good reasons to trust their testimony. Whole books have been written on this subject. Here are my top six reasons to trust what the Gospels say about Jesus.

A Good Fit:

First, the Gospels fit well with the other evidence from the ancient world. The Gospels mention, mostly in passing, a range of historical figures and groups that we know from other texts: the Roman emperor Augustus, Herod ‘the Great’ King of the Jews, Pontius Pilate, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, just to name a few. There is no doubt that all of these people existed at the time of Jesus, and the details the Gospels give us about them in passing are a good fit with what we find in other ancient sources. In the same way, the Gospel descriptions of the geography, the social customs, and the religious and political situation in Palestine in the first century are consistent with what we learn elsewhere. The archaeological evidence from Galilee and Jerusalem – the remains of ancient synagogues, coins and inscriptions – also confirm the picture of life at the time of Jesus that we get from the Gospels. The result is that the Gospels have the ‘ring of truth’ about them. They fit well with everything else we know about Jewish life under Roman rule in Palestine at the time of Jesus.

Eyewitness Testimony:

Related to this, the third reason we can trust the Gospels is that they are based on eyewitness testimony. Here is what Luke says at the beginning of his Gospel:

“Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we had been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. Honourable Theophilus, I have done this to let you know the truth about what you have heard.” (Luke 1:1–4)

Luke here tells us where he got his information. It was from people who actually knew Jesus; people who heard what he said and saw what he did. Since Luke wrote his Gospel within 40 to 50 years of Jesus’ death, there must still have been people around who had heard and seen Jesus and could have corrected the story if Luke got it wrong. Further, Richard Bauckham, now retired Professor of New Testament at the University of St Andrews, has shown that, just as modern historians identify their sources by the use of footnotes and bibliographies, the Gospels indicate their sources according to the ancient convention of naming the individuals who witnessed the events (e.g. Simon Peter in Mark 1:16 and 16:7). By itself, this doesn’t guarantee that everything the Gospels say is true, but it does show that the Gospels are based on the testimony of people who knew the truth about Jesus.

Close to the events

The second reason we can trust the Gospels is that they were written not long after the events themselves. It is quite possible that all four Gospels were completed by 70 AD – that is, within 40 years of Jesus’ crucifixion in 33 AD. At the latest, the Gospels were completed by the 90s AD. While this might seem like a significant time gap, when we compare the Gospels to other ancient sources, they stack up very well. For example, the earliest surviving written reports we have of the exploits of Alexander the Great date from more than 200 years after his death.

Reliable, independent, testimony:

The third reason to trust the Gospels is that they have all the hallmarks of reliable, independent testimony. The most significant sign here is that the four Gospels all relate the same basic story, but they fill in different details and tell it from slightly different points of view. This is exactly what we expect from good, reliable, independent testimony.

As an example, consider the reports in the Australian and English newspapers of the cricket test series known as the ‘Ashes’. If you read any two reports of the same match side by side, you quickly realise that they are telling the same basic story, but from different perspectives. The scorecard will be identical: the names of the players, the record of runs scored by each batsman, the way in which they were dismissed, the figures for the bowlers. All these details will be the same, no matter which newspaper you choose. At the same time, each report will have its own perspective and emphasis. One might mention the weather, the state of the pitch or the size of the crowd, while the other does not. And each report will interpret the match result from its own point of view, reflecting the national sympathies of the journalist or newspaper.

Trustworthy, independent sources usually work like this: they tell the same basic story, but they each tell it from a different point of view and emphasise different details. This is exactly what we have in the Gospels, except that we have not two but four complementary accounts of Jesus’ life. These four accounts read like good, reliable, independent testimony.

Embarrassing details

Another reason to trust the Gospels is that they don’t hide potentially embarrassing elements in the story. In a male-dominated culture, for example, all four Gospels record that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb or the risen Jesus himself (Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1, 11–18). The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, reflects the general attitude of the day when he says, ‘From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex’ (Jewish Antiquities 4.219). In this context, we have to ask why the Gospel writers would have chosen women as the first eyewitnesses of the resurrection, unless that’s what actually happened? The inclusion of this kind of potentially embarrassing detail provides strong evidence for the reliability of the accounts.

Written by People Who Cared About The Truth

The final reason why I think we can trust the Gospels is that they were written by people who obviously cared about the truth. In the quote from Luke’s Gospel I just showed you, Luke claims to be writing so that his readers might ‘know the truth’. In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). Matthew records Jesus telling his hearers that when God judges them they will have to give an explanation for every careless word that they have spoken (Matthew 12:36). The point I am making is that the Gospel writers obviously cared about the truth. They present Jesus saying that God will judge us if we fail to tell the truth. Now, to my mind, these would be very strange things to include in your book if you knew that the whole thing was a made-up fairytale.

For all these reasons and more, I am convinced that we can trust what the Gospels tell us about Jesus.

But Aren’t the Gospels Biased?

Now, you might well be thinking at this point, ‘But if the Gospels were all written by Christians, how can we trust anything they say about Jesus? Aren’t the Gospels biased?’

The answer to this question is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yes, it is certainly true that the Gospels were written by ‘insiders’ – from the point of view of Christian faith. But no, this does not necessarily mean that they have distorted the truth about Jesus. You see, the reality is that all of us are ‘biased’ about everything. None of us can talk about Jesus, maths or ice-cream, for that matter, in a totally ‘straight’ way. We all have a point of view on everything in life. We can’t help it. And, what’s more, this is not a bad thing! Often, if you want to find out about something, the best place to go is to an ‘insider’.

Take cricket, again, as an example. If you were new to game and wanted to know how it works, you could go to someone who has little interest in it in the hope of receiving unbiased information. The chances are, however, that such a person would be of little use to you. While they might be able to describe the game in general terms, they wouldn’t be able to help you understand the differences between the five-day test match and the much shorter T20 format, the intricacies of the ‘leg before wicket’ rule or the meaning of the term ‘golden duck’. If you wanted to really understand the cricket, you would be much better placed by asking a cricket enthusiast, an insider to the game – someone who knows it and loves it in all its peculiar glory. Of course, the cricket enthusiast would be telling you everything from that point of view, so you would need to keep that in mind as you listened to them; but they would still be a much better person to ask for good information than an uninterested outsider.

It is the same with the Gospels. Yes, they are written by people who knew Jesus, cared about him and thought his life mattered. But that is exactly what makes them such a good source of information about him! We need to keep that perspective in mind as we read the Gospels, but there is no better place to go for trustworthy information about the real Jesus than the four eyewitness accounts in the Bible.