“All sins are attempts to fill voids.”Simone Weil
In the previous two instalments we answered:
1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person? (When? Where?)
2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story? (Miracles, healings?)
Here are our remaining questions:
3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross? If so, why?
4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah? If so, did he offer any proof?
5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God? If so, what did he mean? Did he offer any proof? How is that even possible?
6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years? What proof is there? If so, what does that mean?
Four questions are too much for one instalment, but we cannot easily separate these questions from one another in any clinical fashion. They all dovetail, and so we will have to consider them together.
#3 can be disposed of quickly. For #1, the extra-Biblical sources confirm that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person who lived in the early First Century in the Roman sub-province of Judea, which was part of the greater Province of Syria. For #3, those same sources, both Roman and Jewish, confirm that he was crucified during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was Procurator (a Junior Governorship title) of Judea between 26 and 36 CE. As far as those sources go, there was and is no question that his crucifixion mean absolutely that he died on that cross. Roman executions never missed, and crucifixion was a centuries-old near-science adopted from their old arch-enemies the Carthaginians in the Third Century BCE. They had since refined it into perhaps the cruelest and most excruciating form of execution ever devised. No one survived it.
Why then do we find strange proposals cropping up in the 20th and 21st Centuries in the West (e.g, The Passover Plot, 1965), suggesting that in fact Jesus never really died on the cross, but swooned from drugs and was taken down when he appeared to be dead? This unlikely proposal says he was supposedly revived, thus fabricating the whole resurrection scenario. One version of this tale suggests that he later succumbed to his wounds, but had hung on long enough to create the deception of his resurrection which his followers used to deceive multitudes into accepting Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah. Another says that he actually did recover and secretly made his way to southern Gaul (France), married Mary Magdalene (if they were not already married) and had a family. We are told that only a small circle of faithful followers actually knew of this, but they founded a secret community to carry on the true mission of Jesus.
Islam goes so far as to say that Jesus was never crucified at all, but Judas was substituted for him by Allah, who deceived the Romans and Jews but whisked Jesus off to Paradise to await being sent back to show the later Christians the error of their ways. How this created the Church is unexplained, except to say that the Apostles deceived people somehow.
Of course, the sensationalist e-media and conventional tabloid media love these kinds of conspiracy stories and are very ready to capitalize on them for purposes of profit, entertainment (e.g. The Da Vinci Code), or perhaps straight-on hostility to establishment or any form of Christianity.
One way or the other in these scenarios, Jesus died and is still dead (except in the Islamic account), like everyone else who ever lived, so why get into knots about it? But that is the whole (missing of the) point. Citing eye-witnesses who had nothing to gain by lying, and in fact risked their lives to testify that Jesus resurrected,Christians and the Christian Church have declared since the very first that Jesus really and absolutely died on that cross, but did not stay dead! Thirty-Six hours later, he was alive again, and he is still alive, with a real physical body, to this day. No human agency participated in his resurrection in any way. And, Christians say, he will remain alive forever.
Furthermore, Jesus himself declared ahead of the event, and the Church maintains, that his resurrection is also a seal of promise from God that those who commit their lives to him will also be raised from death in the same way with the same kind of indestructible body. There is thus a universe of difference between saying he died on the cross but the story of his resurrection was untrue, or he escaped death on the cross but died later like anyone else and is still dead, and the declaration of his disciples and the Church that he rose incorruptible and promises the same to anyone who will accept him as Lord and Saviour.
Let us consider #4 – Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah? If so, did he offer any proof?
Once again, we find some modern interpreters saying that Jesus never clearly claimed to be Israel’s expected Messiah, and probably claimed nothing more for himself than being a prophet in the long line of prophets found in ancient Israel’s history since the age of the Judges beginning before 1000 BCE. As with so much else when it comes to this sort of debate, much of it hinges on modernist reductionism in the treatment of the New Testament accounts and those of the early Christian (“Patristic”) sources.
Once more, we must reiterate that the latest and best scholarship, both textual and archeological, weighs heavily against those kinds of disclaimers. If Jesus claimed no more than prophet status, his disciples seem somehow to have badly misinterpreted his life and message from the get-go. The authorities seem to have thought he claimed a lot more than that too. Seems like all his contemporaries, even the Romans, misheard him to the point he was taken as a direct personal threat to the whole established order, including the Emperor. Leaves one wondering how two thousand years later we seem to be the only ones who have understood him! Or maybe he was just a whack-job and they decided to get rid of him rather drastically, rather than just ridiculing and ignoring him?
It is true that, during his public ministry, Jesus could be rather cryptic about his identity at times. His favourite title for himself was “Son of Man” and, at least until his trial before the Sanhedrin, he never openly claimed to be “the Son of God”. But the “Son of Man” assignation, as per the prevailing view among the Jewish teachers of Jesus’ time, was tantamount to saying “I am the Messiah.” The Son of Man was the the one the Prophet Daniel prophesied about who would manifest the very presence of Yahweh Himself among the Jews of the Messianic Age, the time when Messiah would finally come. There are many scholarly and contemporary-to-Jesus Jewish confirmations of this.
Another such title was “Son of David”—i.e., the royal heir of King David (ca. 1000 BCE Israelite King) who would establish God’s rule (and Israel’s) over the whole earth according to Yahweh’s covenant with King David made in the 11th Century BCE. Jesus was acclaimed as the Son of David more than once and never said “No I’m not!” In that environment, silence, or lack of denial, was indeed consent.
How about the identity “Son of God” then? He overtly accepted it from his disciples when Peter declared it on behalf of them all at Caesarea Philippi (see Matthew 16:16): “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus affirms this and calls Peter “blessed” for having received this revelation directly from his Father in heaven, the God of Israel. (Mark and Luke give shorter versions of this declaration.)
Well then, does accepting the identity of “Messiah” and even “Son of God” mean he claimed to be God? This is less obvious, and it directs us to how the Jews of the First Century understood this issue. Was the expected Messiah going to be a sort of “super-Prophet”? Was he going to be a being actually sent to earth from Heaven? Or was he going to be a regular human being with some sort of direct connection to God as God’s anointed and adopted Son? Not a “son/child of God” like everyone else “made in the image of God”, but a unique, divinely empowered and one-of-a-kind son who acted and spoke like God Himself? All these concepts were current and circulating.
The leaders themselves differed sharply on them. The Priestly caste, the Sadducees, even questioned that a Messiah was ever promised. The Pharisees believed a Messiah was promised, but did not agree as to which version was correct. All who believed in a coming Messiah agreed that he would deliver Israel from Roman and pagan oppression and establish the rule and reign of Yahweh on earth, with Israel as the ruling people and Jerusalem as the capital. A smallish number thought there might be two Messiahs—one a “suffering servant” figure who would be martyred by the infidels but show Israel how to truly live for Yahweh, and the other who would come after as the mighty ruler. Or could the same one be both?
More on this next time.