The real Jesus?

An eminent historian’s surprising defence of Christ the miracle worker

by Brian D. Johnson

The Real Jesus?

Photograph by by Carlo Dolci/ Getty Images

You can take Paul Johnson’s word for it. In one persona, the 81-year-old Englishman is a right-wing journalistic gadfly with an acid tongue and the inclination to use it, once dismissing Bill and Hillary Clinton as locked in “a dynastic marriage of ambitious swine.” In what amounts to an entirely different avatar, one that expresses the better angels of his nature, Johnson is a distinguished (and calmly judicious) historian, the author of well-regarded works on topics ranging from Napoleon to the origins of modernity.

So there’s no reason to doubt him when he claims there are more than 100,000 biographies of Jesus Christ in English alone, including a good 100 written in just the last decade. It’s a staggering number, but hardly beyond belief for the single most influential figure in human history. And you can also take Johnson’s word for why he has added to that count with Jesus: A Biography From a Believer—every generation deserves its own portrait, which here emerges as surprisingly modern. What you cannot do, however, is accept his book as a work of historical scholarship.

That is in spite of the fact Jesus is a lovely little book, as beautifully written as any of Johnson’s histories, subtle and insightful on what the New Testament aims to tell us about Jesus Christ. But it isn’t historical writing, at least not by the standards of those—skeptic and believer alike—who abide by the rules of the professional historian’s craft. In a nutshell: human events have human or natural agency (miracles are not, cannot be, explanations); time moves in only one direction (seemingly successful predictions—of betrayal, death and resurrection—are much more likely to be the result of retroactive insertion into accounts than of divine foreknowledge); outsiders’ statements or random documents (a name on a tax roll, for instance) are more coolly informative than followers’ claims.

In the case of the historical Jesus, that evidence simply doesn’t exist. Johnson, like C.S. Lewis and many others before him, anchors his belief in the Gospels’ historical accuracy in the level of realistic detail, the seemingly random human touches, in their accounts—like the description of Christ writing in the dust before responding to Pharisees who had asked him if they should stone an adulterous woman (John 8: 6). “I don’t think that kind of detail simply accrues to a story,” says Johnson in an interview. “It’s so striking, so vivid, that I don’t believe it could have been invented.” More cautious historians, even those who accept the authenticity of that particular passage (many do not), don’t agree: they are well aware how stories grow more enthralling in the telling, and do not find such touches as “strangely, almost mysteriously, convincing” as Johnson does. As he himself points out, the Gospels are “literary as well as historical and spiritual documents.”

So here, then, is where the so-called Jesus Wars—the endless debate over just who the historical Jesus was and what he taught—have arrived, at a point that may mark the effective end of them. For the past few decades, the great wave of scholarly inquiry into the historical Jesus, launched with such optimism over a century ago, has kept slamming onto the same rocky shore. There is sufficient third-party evidence, primarily brief references by Roman observers, to convince virtually any historian that Jesus lived, preached, angered the powers that be, and was crucified for it, probably in 30 CE. But that’s all there is.

Everything else comes from within the faith tradition: the 27 books of the New Testament and an equal number of so-called apocryphal works, writings not included among the accepted Christian texts when they were finally hammered out in the fourth and fifth centuries. Just as early Christians pulled works they found unacceptable out of authorized Scripture, the Four Gospels are individually selective, John openly so, concluding with a laconic, “There are also many other things which Jesus did.” Together, the Gospels, in Johnson’s own words, are “mutually reinforcing and correcting.” And they pursue a forthright agenda: detailing the transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus the Christ, son of God. For most historians, the Evangelists offer no answers to the burning questions: what did Jesus believe about himself? What did he say and do as opposed to what others said about him?

Given the dearth of hard outside historical evidence about the man himself, scholars have moved into exploring the context of Christ’s life. They have reconstructed the society and religious ferment of first-century Palestine with an eye to exploring what kind of living marginalized peasants like Jesus, his family and friends, could have eked out, and what they would have been raised to believe, pray and proclaim. The work has proved fertile in enlarging our picture of the era, but it has also marked a tacit abandonment by mainstream scholarship of the possibility of more purely biographical advances.

But not abandoned by everyone: if Jesus, written by an eminent historian untroubled by an absence of third-party historical evidence, occupies one pole of that debate, the other is held by the no less ahistorical works—“wild stories without any evidence,” Johnson calls them—of a host of alt-Jesus authors. Their versions run from a Jesus married to Mary Magdalene (an idea generally associated with Dan Brown, but now pretty much an article of faith among all varieties of unorthodox Jesus writers) to a Jesus spirited from the cross before his death (Michael Baigent) to a Jesus who never lived at all (Tom Harpur). The overarching theme they hold in common is that Scripture—as read by the faithful—is not to be trusted, but that hidden between the lines, obscured by edits and omissions, is the real story. The truth is out there.

The Real Jesus?

Photograph by by Hugo van der Goes/Getty Images

For the faithful, though, the Gospels offer more than enough information. “There’s a library of books out there you could spend your life reading to one conclusion, and then change your mind,” Johnson says with a laugh. “The scholarly apparatus is far less important than the message.” Besides, as the ancient phrase “gospel truth” indicates, the words of the Evangelists pose no problem of trust whatsoever for believers. They certainly don’t for Johnson. Despite the signals given off by his subtitle, which can be read less as a declaration of faith than as a warning this book is not like his other histories, Johnson is “prepared to defend all my assertions, if challenged, by documentation.” To read Jesus is to realize that documentation can only be Christian tradition about the Gospels, which, however ancient, does not date back to the first century, and the Gospels themselves, buttressed at key points by the Epistles of St. Paul. Instead of the paucity of evidence bemoaned by most historians, Johnson has an abundance. And he’s determined to use it to rescue the true story of Jesus from contemporaries who have misread it.

Although tradition receives a few Johnsonian twists—he accepts the author of the Gospel of John as the apostle of the same name, but not the author of the Gospel of Matthew—he reads the writings themselves as gospel truth. They were written within “a generation or two” of Christ’s death, Johnson argues, in contrast to the generally accepted evidence for many other figures of the ancient world, taken from accounts that are “often very sketchy, and often written long after the people in them lived.” Moreover, the Gospels, he writes matter-of-factly, “are based primarily on the memories of Jesus’s mother, Mary,” and, to a lesser extent, the recollections of St. Peter (via his disciple Mark) and St. John.

Rooting events in Mary’s testimony, which most historians would be hesitant to do, is based more on first principles than any definite tradition. In Johnson’s logical deduction, only Mary was present at some key events, such as when the Angel Gabriel told her she was to bear the son of God, so only Mary could have told the Evangelist Luke what transpired. The miracles, from the healings that many commentators have tried to pass off as psychological, to raising Lazarus from the dead, he takes exactly as given; angels and demons (especially the latter) play significant roles in the story.

Johnson, and Jesus, gain enormously from this ahistorical approach. Free from scholarly obsessions large and small—which Gospel was written first, say, or what socio-political point the author of Mark was trying to make with the strange story of the Gadarene swine—Johnson can be almost pointillist in his depiction of Jesus. He demonstrates how the parables not only illuminate moral points in an everyday manner for an uneducated audience, but leave in their wake endless questions for Christ’s hearers to debate.

Johnson discusses Jesus’s approachability, an open personality rarely found in the writings of antiquity, and—an element so rare as to be rightly described by Johnson as “unique in the literature of the ancient world”—Jesus’s love of children. They are a constant in the Gospels, brought to him for blessing by their mothers, sitting by him as he preached, and the beneficiaries of a surprisingly large proportion of his miraculous cures. Often reluctant to reveal his power, Christ always acted whenever a distraught parent begged him to help a dying or suffering child. “He preached,” Johnson notes, “not only ‘Feed my sheep,’ but also, markedly, ‘Feed my lambs.’ ”

So too emerges a Jesus unusually aware of, and attuned to, women, even—or perhaps especially—those marginalized by birth or social stigma. He talks at length to the Samaritan woman at the well, and to the pagan Canaanite crying for her daughter’s life; he clearly found the sins of the adulterous woman no more repugnant than the self-righteousness of those who would judge her. And there were always women with important roles in Jesus’s entourage, most notably his mother and Mary Magdalene, the first human to see the risen Christ. It’s enough to prompt Johnson, an orthodox Roman Catholic, to allow that while there is nothing in the New Testament incompatible with an all-male priesthood, “equally there is nothing in Jesus’s teaching which rules out women priests.”

Johnson’s Christ is both traditional and contemporary, straightforward and paradoxical. Far from being in the lineage of prophets to the Israelites, Jesus was a “universalist” who welcomed everyone to the fold. “People keep claiming Paul was the universalist,” Johnson complains, “the one who switched the message from the Jews to the Gentiles, but before him Jesus was open to Romans, Samaritans, Canaanites.” And although Christ taught that we were here to prepare ourselves for the next world, he did so in a way that has made us better people in this one. In fact, Johnson says, “all the really good things we believe in the modern world—equality of individuals, care for the powerless, even respect for nature—can be traced directly to his teachings.”

It’s not, of course, a portrait a historian would or could paint, but it is an appealing one. (That attraction is aided by the author’s stress on the loving saviour, not the apocalyptic Jesus who utters the New Testament’s truly terrifying statements about eternal life and death. It is Christ, after all, who promises to separate humanity into sheep and goats, casting the latter into hellfire on Judgment Day.) It’s an appeal that’s liable to reach, in its human dimension, not just traditional believers but many of Jesus’s secular admirers too. And for both groups it will be a welcome counterpoint to some of the strange pathways recent writers have followed.

Even those focused on Jesus’s essential Jewishness by no means agree on what kind of Jew he was. Almost 20 years ago the American Catholic expert John Dominic Crossan could count in recent books seven distinct varieties, ranging from political revolutionary to charismatic seer; more have emerged since. In 2008, Canadian Rex Weyler described a “radical, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish Jesus” in The Jesus Sayings, a man who made no divine claims, required no supernatural beliefs from his audience, and demanded action in the here and now. York University professor Barrie Wilson saw a Jewish rabbi essentially hijacked by “Christifiers” like St. Paul, in How Jesus Became Christian (2008).

Those departures from traditional Christianity are mild in comparison with the radical wing of Jesus commentators. Tom Harpur, having contrasted the scant proofs of Christ’s life with the abundant parallels between Christianity and other ancient faiths, concluded in his bestseller The Pagan Christ (2004) that Jesus was a mythological and not an actual person. Harpur shows how, among many other similarities with Jesus, the Egyptian god Horus had a miraculous birth (heralded by a star in the east), 12 followers, cast out demons and healed the sick, died and rose again. Christian apologists, viewing such motifs as “foreshadowings” of the story of the true God, have acknowledged as much since ancient times, but Harpur goes on to argue that early Christians ignorantly took this myth as literally true and attached it to Jesus of Nazareth. And then embarked on a campaign of “forgery and other fraud, book burning, character assassination, and murder itself” that successfully destroyed the evidence of Christianity’s pagan origins.

Something like that, judging by the title—little else is known about it—should be close to the approach of Philip Pullman’s forthcoming novel. The author of The Golden Compass, now as famous for being a militant atheist as he is for being a brilliant writer for children, will release The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ next month. Pullman evidently has no problem with Jesus’s reality, but he does think the Christifiers twisted a great moral authority into a supernatural figure: “St. Paul was a literary and imaginative genius of the first order who has probably had more influence on the history of the world than any other human being, Jesus certainly included.” In case that might be taken as approval, Pullman added, “I believe this is a pity.’’

Then there’s Michael Baigent who, in The Jesus Papers (2006), was convinced Christ faked his death on the cross and escaped to live in Egypt. For a man who believes the Gospels are engaged in a massive cover-up, Baigent bases most of his case on a single word in Mark’s Gospel. The Greek language distinguishes between the words for “living body” and “corpse,” unlike Latin and English where “body” can do for either. When Joseph of Arimathea comes to Pontius Pilate, according to Mark, to ask for Jesus’s body, the word he uses is soma, “the living body.”

A co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), Baigent is most famous for being the first to popularize an idea that Dan Brown later spun into the The Da Vinci Code, and into sales of more than 80 million copies: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife. An entire warehouse of tomes has picked up on that concept, with a new Canadian entry on the way. Barrie Wilson and Canadian-Israeli filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, who three years ago claimed to have found Christ’s tomb, have co-authored The Lost Gospel: Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene, Bride of God, for September release.

According to publisher HarperCollins, the bombshell revelations come from a manuscript at least 1,600 years old, and possibly dating to the time of Jesus. It is purported to be the first solid written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that she was not Jewish, and that there was a plot to abduct Mary and murder Jesus and their children. And where is this manuscript, written by an anonymous monk? Lying forgotten in plain sight in the British Museum, a claim that, on the face of it, scholars would find less believable than turning water into wine.

Given such alternative portraits of Christ, Jesus: A Biography From a Believer—angels, demons, miracles and all—may not be history, but it’s a model of sober scholarship.

The real Jesus?

  1. "…the professional historian's craft. In a nutshell: human events have human or natural agency (miracles are not, cannot be, explanations); time moves in only one direction (seemingly successful predictions—of betrayal, death and resurrection—are much more likely to be the result of retroactive insertion into accounts than of divine foreknowledge); outsiders' statements or random documents (a name on a tax roll, for instance) are more coolly informative than followers' claims."

    Why should those first two be requirements for "the historian's craft"? Unless one knows for a fact that miracles cannot happen or that men cannot know the future, these "requirements" are merely baseless assumptions.

    The third, on the other hand, is quite reasonable. It is true that independent observers are generally more reliable than those with a stake in the matter about which they are testifying. There is a distinction to be made here though between observers who stand to profit from their testimony vs. those who don't. In court, witnesses closest to the deed are most valuable provided they have no vested interest. The testimony of hose both close to the deed and who can't possibly stand to profit from it are by far the most valuable. Think of the weight put on a dying man's testimony, for example. So if those who testified in scripture gained public accolades, fame, or fortune from testimony they by all means throw it away. But if they persisted in their statements even as they were hunted down, tortured, and killed…..that is another matter entirely.

    • Yes, and unless one knows for a fact that we aren't all just part of The Matrix, or that men won't travel through time and alter history, this "history" is all just a baseless assumption.

      Hmm.. perhaps the problem we're having here is that we've screwed up a word.. lemme see..

      AH! Here it is: "baseless".. sorry.. that should have been "base-line"

      • When you find testimony from a group of people with nothing to gain that they've witnessed Agents battling Neo, or have been taken through time, then I'd give those assertions weight too. Until then, they really are baseless….which is where your comparison fails.

        • I've yet to see that regarding miracles and knowing the future as well.

        • About 6 million people (in 1999), believe in the miracles of Sathya Sai Baba.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sathya_Sai_Baba

          They could all seem like sane, and sober people, but that doesn't mean I accept that Baba can perform miracles.

          There are many eyewitness accounts of him perfoming miracles.
          Does that mean we should accept them?

          You would have to be even more credulous, to accept a miracle claim from 2000 years ago.

          The apostles also felt that they did have something to gain… heaven.

          I would also point out that many seemingly sane people, have died for beliefs that wern't true.
          I don't see this a evidence of their beliefs, and neither do you (probably).

          I have a good respect for you Gaunlion, and if you wish to debate this I will try and be gentle,
          but if you are sensitive to heathenism, I would suggest that we don't.

          • If 6 mil believe in the miracles of Sai Baba then that means it's something to be taken seriously, which is not the same thing as accepting it as true. The witnesses could be mistaken, or tricked, or lying, or any number of things. However, if they seem like sensible people who aren't out to make money off it then I'd suggest considering it as a possibility rather than writing it off as impossible.

            I write things off as "impossible" when they involve a clear contradiction – either an inherent contradiction, or a contradiction with something else I know for a fact. But since things I know "for a fact" are remarkably few, I can generally only write things off as "impossible" when they are inherently self-contradictory. Miracles and prophecies don't fall into that category.

            If you want to debate it further I'd be happy to (and thanks for the kind words!). No need to be gentle, either – I'm certainly not sensitive to heathenism. I'm surrounded by heathens and have been one myself at various times. All I ask is that you refrain from taking cheap shots at the things I hold sacred (which you don't seem like the type to do). But by all means, criticize, question, throw every rational objection you've got – that sort of thing is always good.

          • I generally agree that the supernatural is not impossible, but when I claim to "know" something, it is on a scale of probabilities.

            I have trouble believing that Sai Baba is performing miracles, since I haven't see him do any, and he hasn't been tested rigorously.

            I have yet to see a proven miracle, or supernatural event. Since I doubt that it is happening now, I also doubt it has ever happened.

            The reason is that I know people lie all the time, sometimes for not reason at all. I weigh the balance of which is more likely, a supernatural event or someone lying about one. (or being decieved themselves, by their own brain chemistry)

            So many Gods have come, and gone throughout the course of human history, no one can believe in all of them (and their claims), so you have to deduce that alot of that stuff was made up.

            Now this is the tricky part. I have looked into something of the history of the bible, and of Christianity, and I find compelling reasons to think, that it is also mostly made up (with some history thrown in).

            The first works that were written in the NT were Paul's writings (55-60C.E), he descibes Jesus as a spirtitual being. From what I understand he never refers to Jesus coming back in the flesh after he died. If you move on to the synoptic gospels (65-70C.E) he does come back in the flesh, and performs many miracles. Then moving on to John (85-90C.E), where Jesus is even "larger then life" then he was in the first three. The point of this is that the Jesus legend grows larger as time passes.

            Then when you find out that they proclaimed him the "son of god" at the Council of Nicea (325C.E), by a show of hands, it's hard for me to believe that he even ever claimed to be.

            I do believe that there was a historical Jesus. I just don't believe in the supernatural.

            It's getting late in my timezone, and I think I'm rambling a bit, so any response from me will probably have to wait for tommorow. Nice chatting with ya.

          • Oh, one last thing regarding prophesy.

            If the new testament authours had the Old Testament texts (which they did), it is pretty easy to imagine them twisting some facts to fit the Old testament prophesy.

            Matthew is the worst offender in this, among the gospels.
            He misuses Isaiah 7:14 right of the hop (in Mt 1:23).
            He also has Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two animals.

            I do not find a very compelling case to be made, that Jesus did in fact fulfill the messianic prophesies, and many Jews would agree with me.

            O.K, Now I'm really rambling. G'night.

          • I’ll say this for you, you seem quite interested and involved for a subject which, ultimately, you think has no relevance. Count me as impressed.

            I find the religious case to be more compelling in poetry than prose, myself.

          • Thanks for the compilment, but I wouldn't be too impressed if I were you.

            I'm a bit of a cliched, militant secularist.

            My mother became a "born-again" when I was 14. Seeing so smart a woman fall so hard, I had to look into it myself.

            I did not fully embrace my atheism, or polemics, until a few years after 9/11. It opened my eyes to the dangers of religious belief, and they have been wide open ever since.

            I'm not saying that religion has done no good, but the good is outweighed by what we have to give up a major part of our humanity in return. (our autonomy)

          • How do you, as an acclaimed atheist, respond to charges regarding the evil perpetrated on the world in the name of athiesm? I'm thinking, as you've probably guessed, of Stalinst terrors, purges, genocidal famines, deportations, gulags, etc. etc. And how would you persuade someone like me, a person of faith, that the good of atheism outweighs the bad?

          • If I were interested in changing the mind, of someone who swallows that tripe so willingly,
            I'd have to point out that the purges you speak of, were done in the name of communist dogma, and Stalins own brutal love of power… not atheism.

            Since atheists were killed in those purges as well, I'd say that that totally destroys your ahistorical, and biased view of these events.

            Perhaps you'd like to pull out the Hitler canard next. It's tiresome to see the depths to which people of faith will sink.

            If you still don't get it. I'm against any dogma taken to extreme levels and think the whole idea of "faith" without reason, whether in God, the state, or a "dear leader" leads to tragedy.

            Atheisism simply means that a person does not accept the outrageous claims made in any of the "holy books".

            It has nothing to do with political ideology, which can be just as dangerous, when accepted without question, by the credulous.

            Also, the burden of proof is on you, as all I claim is, that there is no good evidence to believe as you. A neutral, and default starting point.

            It's up to you to provide evidence, and reasons for your dogma. Otherwise I will assume that you have no logical reasons, just "gut" thinking.

            Good luck with that evidence, as the brightest apologists have been trying for centuries with no success. That why there are still so many religions, instead of just your "true" one.

  2. Are you interested in some scholarly work that does a great job of showing how history and archaeology supports the record of the life and ministry of Jesus as written in the four Gospels? If you are, check out the DVD "Jesus…Legend or Lord?" by Dr. Paul L. Maier, available from Tobias Communications at 1 – 800 – 463 – 4685 or http://www.tobiascom.com. Also, pick up Dr. Maier's book "In the Fullness of Time," published by HarperCollins. You do not have to put your head in the sand to believe in the biblical Jesus.

      • Do check out Dr. Maier's work. You might be surprised.

        • Somehow I doubt he'd be better then Strobel, McDowell, and Craig, but thanks for the offer anyway father.

          Sorry for the snark too, but I can't help but be a little glib when it comes to this topic.

          It's been so sacrosanct for so long… Sometimes I can't resist a cheap shot at an apologist.

          • Oh come off it. Your snark is not unusual in the least. Ridicule towards those who take the Bible as reliable in some form or another, especially in terms of miracle and prophecy, is very common. You are not standing alone and courageously for the truth.

          • But he was polite in his reply, so I felt obliged to return it in kind.

            I'm soooo Canadian that way.

          • No worries, my friend! You are forgiven! What Dr. Maier has to offer that might be a bit distinct from the other gentlemen you mention is that he is professional historian. He Professor of Ancient History at Westen Michigan in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA. It is not a Christian school. Dr. Maier is a Christian. He is a member of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. I found his work to be very honest and compelling, even though I have been a Christian for 34 years. Thank you for reading my comments.

          • Michael Behe is a professor of biochemistry at a non-Christian school.
            I do not easily succumb, to appeals to authority, of that nature.

            You might have sold me thou. I may check him out, if only to destroy his claims. As you can see, I take an interest in such things.

            Just so you know, I am amenable to actual evidence. I do believe in a historical David.

            Tel Dan Stele http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tel_Dan_stele

          • I do hope you do check out Dr. Maier. The book has some great writing and photographs. I believe you will see some actual evidence.

            I will be away for awhile, but we can catch up later. I will pray that the Lord Jesus will make Himself undeniably real to you!

            Grace and Peace to you in Jesus' Name!

  3. The historian Luke wrote of "authentic evidence' concerning the Resurrection. Sir William Ramsey, who attempted for fifteen years to undermine Luke's credentials as a historian and to refute the New Testament's reliability, finally concluded: "Luke is a historian of the first rank…. This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."

    Because what Luke says speaks of miracles and a resurrection it *can't * be real history.

    Yet another article to refute the existence and truth of Jesus Christ. Based on the cover I thought the article would be a bit less of a yawn

    • Since we can't possitively identify Luke as the author of "Luke", and that it was written 50 years after Jesus crusifixion, I'd counter that it doesn't matter what kind of historian he was.

      Also, what do you think of the contradictions between Matthew and Luke?

      They are unreliable as historical accounts, if for no other reasons then their conflicting accounts, and geneologies.

      • Even if the author of the Book of Luke is anonymous, the substance of Luke's attestations of officials, places, customs and events are shown to be generally reliable. Some skeptical argument was made about luke's inaccuracies like the non-existence of a Quirinus during the Nativity' census have been clarified already as plausible; for instance Justin Martyr's mentioning of Syria already having a procurator named Quirinus at the time of the census and Sir Ramsey's allusion to Lapis Tiburnitus' fragmentary accounts of a roman official applying for legateship of Syria twice under governor Saturninus, which corroborates with Martyr's account that Quirinus did serve as a procurator under Saturninus as governor in Syria twice and besides Luke's wording 'governor' imply a hegemony that Quirinus is an important official in the general sense, if not Governor in the direct sense.

        So what if there are contradictory accounts in Matthew and Luke? Skeptics assume an impossible and unrealistic standard that events have to be reported precisely the same. The accounts can be looked as complimentary in that they focus on different aspects of the same event. There is obvious bias in the reporting of the aspects but not the kind that can impair objectivity, but the bias relates to the relevance of the writer's subject matter ( Chris Hitchens gets debates about God, yet he has written articles about his political/socio-economic views that gets little mention on Theological/Philosophy circles. if a hitchens bio were published post-humously that mentions him being in an event talking about politics in one account and another separate snippet about religion. According to the perfectionistic skeptical standard, him attending such an event would be judged dubious, because he's talking about two different things in two accounts about the same event)

        Its a no-brainer, contradictory accounts can be reasonably harmonized, its the skeptics who are unreasonable in being unrealistical harsh on the New Testament

  4. The summary seems to be that as far as any scientific standard is concerned, we can’t say a whole heckuva lot about who Jesus was? So we’re left making intelligent guesses? Which means that we have to rely on what sources we have? Which means the New Testament, mostly?

    • I'm may be being a bit picky, but I don't think "scientific standard" is the correct term here.

      History is too murky to be consider a true "science", as far as I'm concerned.

      Something more accurate would be "evidence based standard" or "historical evidence".

      The NT is filled with so many errors, and contradictions, that I don't see how they can be used as a reliable historical account. (nevermind all the miracles)

      • The NT is only filled with contradictions if you think of it as one unanimous whole. The actual story is that Christians were varied in their beliefs about Jesus, and edited Mark and Paul's letters to reflect their beliefs. The idea of a four-fold gospel canon is a result of the universalists (Grk "catholicos") wanting to consolidate power in the late 2nd century. Prior to that, the gospels were anonymous and edited by various Christian communities around the Roman empire. Some Christians wanted a more Jewish and Torah observant Jesus (hence Mark is edited to become a version of Matthew). Some wanted a more anit-Semitic Jesus (hence John). Some Christians wanted a Greco-Roman hero (thus the virgin birth). Some Christians thought that only Paul was the apostle who got the true message of Jesus correct, thus the motivation to say that only Paul's letters were sacred scripture (hence a Christian named Markion putting together the first Christian Canon).

        • The gospel of John isn't anti-semitic, jesus is portrayed in the accounts as dutifully following the passover, expounding and teaching the Torah to the common people, its the cultural and religious intelligentsia that he's criticizing upon as being hypocritical (pharisees) or impious (sadducees) Besides if the skeptics zero in on the pointed terms that Jesus remarks upon the pharisees like 'Children of the Devil' they might as well take most of the Torah and the Ne'vim, the revered books of Judaism to be anti-semitic on account of the Jews being portrayed as an adulterous, blaspheming, stiff-necked people. Jesus isn't condemning Jews for their reverence to the Torah and their culture, but for their disdain of God's truth and their hyper-legalization of the Law, which supposed to make life easier and holier for people. This synchronizes well with the themes in Mark and Matthew as well as Luke that portrayed him as to have lived a life as a devout, practionier of Judaism. Even identified with a Shammainan school of thought of Judaism over the strict Hillelan when confronted with the issue of the Law as applied to Divorce.

          Its just to show that comments like the ones above have no factual basis whatsoever, but its all fluffy imagination coming from Skeptics who think too much for their own good.

  5. I think Jesus is the Confucius of Jews… Unattributed in the Hebrew world though…

  6. Every one can express an individual thing in their very own way. So Johnson did that very smartly. He did this in his very own way. It’s a matter of appreciation.

  7. Yes, there certainly are a lot of frauds out there. The only reasonable reaction when faced with a claim like that is to be very skeptical. Notice, however, that they all rely on either (a) fake illnesses, or (b) things that aren't really illnesses. It simply couldn't work if everyone watching knew the ill person and was familiar with his disability. It also doesn't generally work with people who've been executed by career professionals in the execution business.

    As to Paul, he himself only had a "vision" or "trance-like" encounter as you describe, and he is very open about the fact that this is not the same as seeing Christ in the flesh, which he says the apostles and about 500 others had claimed. He attributes this to his unworthiness because he had been an ardent anti-Christian, rounding them up for torture, imprisonment, and execution.

    "We are in agreement that it is too presumptuous to say that the supernatural is impossible, as anything is technically possible, but I would say there is little or no reason to believe it is reality.
    The supernatural is by definition, not part of the natural world. "

    True. But "not part of the natural world" is not the same thing as "not real". Since history deals with the study of events, rather than the natural world per se, it must include supernatural events if such things happen.

    "We are both still Conservatives, both love this country, and want the best for her."
    Indeed! And thanks again for your kind words. If we ever meet up we can have a few beers and enjoy our common conservatism while debating our differences.

  8. Of course, all of these strands were "catholicized" to end up as our current New Testament. The true historical account would be tracing all of the various "heresies" and seeing where they lead. You can tell more history about the people doing the writing than the subject they're writing about.

    • If its all been edited and revised umpteen times, how can it be relied on to be the divine word or God? Or, for that matter, reliable in any way. For all we know, the entire thing could have been re-written to suit the needs of "The Church."

  9. So why would Paul write that Jews could not be expected to believe in Jesus as they had never heard of him apart from Christians preaching about him?

    Why did Paul think the big advantage the Jews had had was having the scriptures?

    Rather than having Jesus live among them?

    romans 16
    Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him

    Jesus had been revealed through scripture.

    • Why are there still Jews then?

      Maybe it's because Jesus never fulfilled the messianic prophesy? That would be my bet.

  10. What was the point of Jesus?

    Romans 15
    For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

    paul learned about Jesus through reading scripture.

    It was scripture that gave Christians endurance and encouragement , not the words of Jesus.

    Paul is so vocal about the fact that his Christianity came from scripture that people are forced to say that Paul is silent, so they can avoid listening to him.

  11. This article was a yawn and a half. Next time you write a piece on something you don't understand, like Jesus, go and get someone who does to write your piece for you. Doug Wilson would write it better. So would Mr. Johnson.

    And about the revelation of Jesus in scripture, that is true He is. But let us not seperate Jesus from the word of God either. Just as He is revealed in the word, He is The Word (Jn. 1:1) and while it is good to distinguish between Jesus and the Bible, we cannot seperate them as Barth did.

  12. Miracles cannot happen? Not in the scientific realm it is said…but then humanistic science by definition excludes all phenomena that cannot be empirically explained; humanistic science precludes that God does not exist. It is hardly surprising then, that science has failed to find him or evidence of him…

    Highly recommended site: thereasonforgod.com

  13. He said every generation needs their own biography of Jesus but also said there were 100 written in the last decade.

  14. "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross" by John M. Allegro is an interesting read.

  15. Credibility damage: editors of Macleans lose two points for asserting that Hugo van der Goes was a photographer. Likewise for Carlo Dolci. Painters, my friends. Jan Vermeer most likely used a camera obscura to craft his intimate interiors of seventeenth century Holland. But van der Goes? Not a chance. Fifteenth century Flemish painters didn't do Kodak. Or even camera obscura. All in all a dreary review, but the oversight did catch my eye.

  16. Historical Jesus is a myth. The four Gospels that eventually made it into the New Testament, for example, are all anonymous, written in the third person about Jesus and his companions. None of them contains a first-person narrative ("One day, when Jesus and I went into Capernaum…"), or claims to be written by an eyewitness or companion of an eyewitness. Why then do we call them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Because sometime in the second century, when proto-orthodox Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities, they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke, the travelling companion of Paul). Most scholars today have abandoned these identifications, and recognize that the books were written by otherwise unknown but relatively well-educated Greek-speaking (and writing) Christians during the second half of the first century.
    No one has the slightest physical evidence to support a historical Jesus; no artifacts, dwelling, works of carpentry, or self-written manuscripts. All claims about Jesus derive from writings of other people. There occurs no contemporary Roman record that shows Pontius Pilate executing a man named Jesus. Devastating to historians, there occurs not a single contemporary writing that mentions Jesus. All documents about Jesus came well after the life of the alleged Jesus from either: unknown authors, people who had never met an earthly Jesus, or from fraudulent, mythical or allegorical writings.

    • "Historical Jesus is a myth", is a bigger leap of faith than believing. You make compelling arguments for your point of view but do two billion Christian have it wrong. I don't beleive that Christianity would have stood the test of time on a lie.
      If the Bible is correct is there is no need for artifacts? You've no doubt heard of the shroud of Turin. Look at the fuss this relic has created about its authenticity. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the Shroud, it just is. Personally talking about the third person in the bible is being very picky. And recording every historical moment when it happened back then could have occurred but the people had other things to think about (like trying to stay alive) rather than heading to the nearest stationary store to buy parchment that would last several millenia. There's whole civilizations that have disappeared without much of a trace. Having artifacts doesn't mean much; except to stir the pot.

      • You're going on strength of numbers? Seriously?

        By that metric, Allah is the true God, and we should all be worshipping by the Koran.

    • Try reading "Antiquities of the Jews" by Flavius Josephus (37- c. 100AD), a Roman/Jewish historian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus ). The extant copies of this work contain two passages about Jesus and as such is sometimes cited as independent evidence for the historical existence of Jesus.
      The following passage appears in the Greek version of Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-64, in the translation of William Whiston (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus ):
      "3.3 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.

    • The earliest extant Roman writers, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, writing shortly after Josephus in the early second century, identify Jesus as Christus, rather than Jesus, without implying anything about Jesus' Messianic status.

      These are historical records about historical Jesus!

    • Book 15 of the Annals (written c. 116) by the Roman historian Tacitus mentions Christus as a person convicted by Pontius Pilate during Tiberius' reign: "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired."

    • Pliny the Younger (c. 61 – c. 112), the provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan c. 112 concerning how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor, and instead worshiped "Christus".
      "Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ."

    • Charles Guignebert, Professor of the History of Christianity, at the Sorbonne, maintained that the "conclusions which are justified by the documentary evidence may be summed up as follows: Jesus was born somewhere in Galilee in the time of the Emperor Augustus, of a humble family, which included half a dozen or more children besides himself… and "there is no reason to suppose he was not executed".
      Recent research has focused upon the "Jewishness" of the historical Jesus. The re-evaluation of Jesus' family, particularly the role played after his death by his brother James, has led scholars like Hans Küng to suggest that there was an early form of non-Hellenistic "Jewish Christianity" like the Ebionites, that did not accept Jesus' divinity and was persecuted by both Roman and Christian authorities. Küng suggests that these Jewish Christians settled in Arabia, and may have influenced the story of Christ as portrayed in the Qur'an.

  17. The real Jesus Christ, is the Biblical Jesus Christ. Read the outstanding award winning book-The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel. Contains: a dozen top world scholars all with earned Ph.d's-degrees in science,history,archeology,theology,philosophy and they all give facts and sound arguements for the Biblical Jesus Christ being real and true!.

    • Strobel's writing style is straightforward and easy to read. In most chapters, Strobel uses the first few pages to introduce the objection to faith and set the stage for the interview with the Christian apologist to follow. To give Strobel credit, he usually does a very good job at introducing the objection. And most of the questions he asks in his interviews are valid, reasonable questions. The main complaint with Strobel is that after doing a good job at setting the stage, he invariably gets very inadequate responses to the questions and all too easily accepts them.

      Many critics of Strobel's prior work, The Case for Christ, complained that he didn't bother including the opinions of any skeptics. Perhaps in answer to this complaint, Strobel's first interview is with Charles Templeton, a former minister who is now an agnostic and has left the ministry. This is a good interview, and, in fact, does a good job at raising some of the questions that many people have about the Christian faith. But it should be noted that Strobel interviews one skeptic, in the beginning of the book, and interviews eight believers to answer Templeton's questions. Essentially, eight believers are given the opportunity to rebut Templeton's questions, but no skeptic is allowed to rebut the believers.

    • Two other books giving evidence for the Biblical Jesus Christ are-1- Evidence That Demands A Verdict {Revised Edition} by Josh McDowell. This book gives lot's of evidence for the Holy Bible being solid and factual,is a good read!. 2-Guide To How It All Began by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz with scientific adviser Dr.John Wiester. This book gives interesting and informative answers for a creator of the universe. Placed out for lay people to understand yet still is solid!. / My own point Jesus Christ is real is due to many thousands claims of miracles in the name of Jesus Christ some very outstanding-even if just one of the miracles is true that is proof in itself Christ Jesus is true and real!!.

      • Book-Resurrection by Hank Hanegraaff, give much facts and top reasons and sound answers for the resurrection of Jesus Christ as factual and real. Is an smart,interesting,informative plus outstanding good read!. {Powerfull}

    • If Strobel is your trump card, then heaven help you.
      That author makes a leap of faith into a research technique.

  18. Are you sure this was a book review? After reading this article, I have no idea what this particular book is about. You have cited comparisons to just about every 'Jesus' book ever written. But can you tell me a little bit about the actual book in question? I'm glad for the author of this review, that he is so well read, but I was looking for a bit of an idea or what "The Real Jesus?" contains. This article was more of a review of Brian Bethune and how many books he has read, rather than the current book in question. I guess "The Real Jesus?" remains as much of an enigma, as the real Jesus.

    • Totally agree with you. The article said nil about this book.

  19. Fairytales and nothing more. !!

  20. This review comes off as an arrogant dismissal by Brian Bethune, who clearly prefers to wallow in the pathetic alternative "histories" peddled by Baigent and Brown rather than discussing a) the actual book being reviewed or b) barring that, comparable and mention-worthy literature.

    It's an interesting tactic to 1) lay the foundation of the author's credibility, 2) assert that by your superior knowledge you have concluded that his biography doesn't hold water, and 3) talk about much worse books in the same article to further degrade the clout of the book in question. Not your traditional book review, but to each his own, I suppose.

    I'm with Mamakel. Although I wasn't convinced that Bethune had read any of the books he mentions. I do also recommend, as Larry suggested, the Case for Christ by Lee Strobel as a very helpful book in wading through the historical "evidence" for the events surrounding Jesus' life. It's a very dense read, but it aims to be as unbiased as possible, which might be a refreshing change for anyone who just read this review.

  21. What a diatribe! The cover would suggest this to be a book review. Instead it's nothing more than a launching pad for Brian Bethune to bash Christianity. He's entitled to his opinion, but a national news magazine seems the wrong forum for his personal soapbox. Additionally, here in our "tolerant" society where we condemn comments about "riding camels" and "flying carpets" as promoting hatred against an identifiable group… how do we categorize Brian Bethunes comments about Christianity? I'm all for Free Speech. I'm also all for compassion, discernment and honesty. Perhaps with Brians next book review, he could actually review the book.

  22. Very dissapointing Mr. Bethune. Very dissapointing MacLeans.
    Of Mr. Bethune I know nothing, so nothing was expected. After reading his thoughts I would still expect nothing of him.
    On the other hand I do expect something of MacLeans! Publishing something of this low caliber is not it.

  23. You don't need to be Catholic, or Christian or religious to believe that Jesus walked the earth – even if the chronology is incorrect. The message everyone keeps missing is that when he performed these "strange" loving gestures deemed as miraculous, he reminded his disciples that "you too can do this and even more than I" . Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if everyone actually cared for one another and could do these things on an advance quantum level? The bureaucracy and hierocracy would be threatened and probably abolished. Therefore, Jesus was a threat to the Roman system and had to be destroyed. Watch out ……. history may try to repeat when human kind matures into its full potential.
    Fortunately for the faithful, there is a promised second coming. That will end all doubt.

  24. And what does this have to do with the article under discussion? Fanatical ranting doesn't belong here.

  25. For those who accuse Christians of blind faith, they condemn themselves by willful unbelief. No one who ever scoured the Bible for truth ever came away with less than the truth. When one turns away from what is revealed , it is because of the hardness of one's heart to the truth revealed by the Holy Spirit . To reject the person and work of Christ is fatal. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life, no (one) comes to the Father but by me.

    When you trample underfoot the blood of Christ for salvation, then there is no other way of salvation…no other hope.

    • thats nice…now follow those nice young men i nthe white suits back into the padded room

  26. He lives in my heart today! I am so thankful for that and the peace I have can not be measure in value of anything on this earth. A book I like is called Blue Like Jazz Non Religious thoughs on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller A good read for anyone.

  27. Um Mr Bethune…I thought even "professional historians" would be more up to date with the, actually not even all that recent, scientific discoveries and theories that in fact time does n-o-t move in just one direction. Among other things, it is thought to fold back on itself. It really is sad when a person so blindly wants to believe something that they will ignore science. –Holy cow, was that last sentence fun to type. Maybe try reading some of Brian Greene's books like "The Elegant Universe" to pry your mind open a little.

  28. And very disappointing Mcleans that you chose Brian Bethune to review the book. He thinks its basic premise in false, surprise!

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