While sitting in class, thumbing through books at the library, or flipping past a documentary while channel surfing, you may encounter “The Historical Jesus.” Perhaps your first thought will be, “Oh this is cool; they’re actually giving historical credence to the One I claim as Savior.” As you listen or read a little more, you may notice passages of the Bible being shed in a positive light, and it may be suggested that these portions of Scripture line up with the latest archeological findings and other sources of extra-biblical history. While this may seem like a really great thing, for the most part the Historical Jesus denies the biblical Jesus found in God’s revelation to man. Before you get too excited, there are a few things you should know about this version of Jesus.
The Historical Jesus in Recent Headlines
Two men placed the Historical Jesus in the headlines in 2013. One of them was Reza Aslan, a Muslim college professor; the other was Bill O’Reilly, a well known Fox News television host.
In his writings, Reza Aslan has given much effort to making Islam relevant in modern culture. The top two religions in the world are Christianity and Islam. Of the nearly 7 billion people in the world, 2.2 billion (33 percent) claim to follow Christ (this includes subsets and offshoots like Catholicism and Mormonism) and around 1.4 billion (21 percent) profess Muhammad. With this being the case, it is no surprise that Aslan would seek to diminish Jesus to a mere historical figure. In his work, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan admires this poor, homeless, charismatic peasant who amasses a vast following of other peasants that eventually seek to overthrow the Roman government. This revolt is snuffed out after Jesus’ death at a relatively young age.
In his book, Killing Jesus, Bill O’Reilly presents an action packed narrative of the life of Jesus. He begins with armed soldiers carrying out Herod’s search for the baby that had been called King. He ends with an empty tomb and claims that the body of Christ has never been found. Although criticized and commended, this book is, for the most part, a good read if you like history written with a contemporary edge. However, the opening paragraphs that explain the reason for the book are quite disturbing. O’Reilly asserts that little is actually known about Jesus because the four New Testament Gospel writers contradict each other and write from a spiritual point of view rather than a historical perspective. Furthermore, O’Reilly actually claimed in an interview with 60 Minutes that late one night the Holy Spirit told him to write this book. While attempting to give historical clarity to the life of Jesus, O’Reilly, a professed Catholic, obstructs the biblical view of Christ, and in doing so undermines the deity of Christ, the historical accuracy of Scripture, and the work of the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit will never work in opposition to God’s revelation found in Scripture).
The Historical Jesus Is Not New
The Historical Jesus movement started long before Bill O’Reilly and Reza Aslan. This intellectual expedition declares its origin in the Enlightenment Age, and it is generally accepted that Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a German philosopher and writer, is the father of this endeavor. The Enlightenment era (also called the Age of Reason) as a whole denied tradition. Likewise, secular and religious scholars on a quest to find the Historical Jesus deemed the Gospel writers too dogmatic and the record of Christ’s miracles as unreliable.
This denial of Christ goes back even to the end of the first century. In his epistles, the apostle John wrote to clarify false doctrine concerning the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ. He described the false teaching of his day as the spirit of the Antichrist and said there were already many antichrists in the world (1 John 2:18). One should note that “anti” does not mean “opposite;” it simply means “opposing.” The spirit of the Antichrist is not the opposite of Christ and His truth; it often closely resembles Christ. In fact, John said many of these antichrists had come from within their own circles (1 John 2:19). The Historical Jesus sounds good at first, but it is without a doubt in opposition to the biblical Christ. According to John, the spirit of the Antichrist opposes Christ by denying that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 2:22-23; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7). Anyone who denies that Christ is God is a false teacher.
It seems that John was combating the early stages of a heresy known as Gnosticism, which would later gain traction in the second century. The Gnostics believed they had a special spiritual knowledge and believed in a dualism between the spirit and the flesh. This dualism would give room for their participation in all types of sexual sin without spiritual harm to their special knowledge. They concluded that Christ could not have been a man of flesh, because God would never inhabit a sinful body. Regardless of their reason for denial, the false teachers in John’s day and the false teachers of the Historical Jesus both deny that God has come in the flesh and that Christ is God (1 John 2:22-23; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7).
The Historical Jesus’ Biggest Error
By far, the biggest problem with the Historical Jesus movement is the denial of Christ’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul made it clear that the entire Christian faith rests on this event. Paul contended that without Christ’s resurrection, the gospel message is in vain and the Christian’s faith is in vain (verse 14). Without the Resurrection, God is a liar (verse 15) and the Christian is still in sin (verse 17). Without the Resurrection, the Christian will have no hope of seeing dead loved ones in the afterlife (verse 18), and he will have a miserable life while still on this earth (verse 19). Christianity rests on the reality of the Resurrection; without it, Christianity is a hoax.
Virtually no historian denies that a Jewish man named Jesus of Nazareth walked this globe and died at the hand of the Roman government. Even Bart Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill who is a well-known secular agnostic and denier of Christianity, contends that any competent scholar of antiquity agrees that Jesus in fact existed in this fashion. The question is whether Jesus resurrected from the grave as He and His followers claim. While the Historical Jesus suggests that Jesus was only a good prophet, many Bible scholars have suggested that because of His claims, if He were not truly the Lord, He must be either a liar or lunatic. Jesus claimed to be the resurrection and the life and that anyone who accepts Him, though he may die a physical death, will live eternally (John 11:25). He also claimed to be the only road to God the Father and even life itself (John 14:6). These are either the words of a blasphemer or the words of a man who is truly God in the flesh.
Believing Is Seeing
After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to many people, one of whom was Thomas (John 20:19-31). Christ suggested that Thomas believed in Him based on sight and commended the many more who would believe in Him even though they would never see Him (verse 29). Our culture says, “Seeing is believing,” but faith is the evidence of the things we cannot see (Hebrew 11:1). One must take a step of faith and allow God to open his or her sight. This does not take away the importance of intellectual engagement, but it does help us to realize that faith, not human reason, is the starting place to understanding God. Toward the end of his Gospel, John made it clear that the purpose of his writing was so that readers would believe and have life through Jesus’ name (John 20:31).
Daniel Webster is married to Kimberly (Fisher) Webster and has three awesome kids—Aaron, Julianna and Noah. He started pastoring the Glad Tidings Church in Asheboro, NC during the summer of 2013. He has completed a Master of Biblical Studies at Virginia Beach Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing the MDiv at Maranatha Baptist Seminary. In his spare time Daniel enjoys coffee, motorcycles, homework, and time with Kimberly and the kids.
This article appears in The Brink magazine (Spring 2014).