Will the real Jesus please step forward?

So I’m writing a paper for grad school. (And yes, I did give in and enroll, but that’s a story for another day.) Here’s my assignment: What evidence do we have for the existence of Jesus outside of the Bible? Do we have any proof that he was a historical person at all?

Was he, like Shakespeare, a real person about whom we might have some inaccurate information handed down—history made myth?

Was he, like King Arthur, a fictional character whose lovably delusional fan club believes he was real—myth made history?

Or is it all true?

Who was this guy?

History is so much like detective work, adding up evidence, building a case. It’s fascinating, all the bits and pieces fitting together, making a puzzle that often has some obvious holes, then standing back and examining the whole picture. But it’s also really interesting, in this case, to watch the detectives work.

On the one hand is a group who’ve always believed Jesus was a real Jewish peasant circa Zero AD, but have worked and worked to discredit anything substantive that has been said about him. They tend to say things like, “Sure, he was a good teacher. But his followers never meant to imply he was God. That part got added in later.”

On the opposite side are those who think he was as historically valid as, say, Thor. “Sure, Paul worshipped him,” they’ll say, “but only a ‘heavenly’ version of him. Nobody ever thought he was a flesh-and-bone human.”

Funny, he can be human, or he can be god. But how could he ever be both?

It’s the age-old dilemma for Christianity. We understand a holy-and-divine Lord of All the Universe, remote, perfect, all-powerful. Or we can get our heads around a wise and salty teacher, relatable, tolerant, inspiring. But we have an awfully hard time understanding God made flesh. And so the heresies tip back and forth like a teeter-totter:

He was God, and he never actually died on the cross, and anything stained by unholy flesh is wicked.

Or he was human, the miracles are bogus, and of course he never “rose again.”

Or maybe we’re all gods-in-the-making, and he’s our best exemplar. Be good, be nice, be like Jesus.

The Christian story is wholly unique in its “fully human, fully God” doctrine. You can pick from a dozen either-or religions, but this one is, right down to the core, a mystery. All of the justice, purity, power, and goodness of deity packed in to a person limited by a breakable body, “tempted as we are but without sin” as Hebrews 4 has it. It’s a theological conundrum that begs the big question—why? Why in the world would omnipotent God condense himself in time and space to be born in a barn? “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

I like that my God can’t be easily explained, can’t be reduced to a mathematical theorem. I like knowing that a lifetime of study can only scratch the surface, that sometimes the best we can come up with is “mystery.” It quite makes sense to me that God is bigger than the human mind can unravel. Otherwise he wouldn’t be much of a God at all.

It’s also intriguing that this God (if he really exists) refuses to dispense proof positive. I heard an atheist lamenting this on a podcast this week (fascinating show—you should really check it out). If he’s God, the question goes, why doesn’t he wave his magic wand and drive our doubt away? Where are the flashy miracles? Why can’t I ask him to show up and see his giant invisible finger write on the wall, “It’s me!”

If he’s God, he certainly could do that, and, Christians would say, he does do that from time to time. But ever since Moses went up against Pharaoh as the Jews’ first apologist, God has steadfastly refused to make anyone believe.

“Pharaoh’s going to ask you who sent you. Tell him it was I AM.”

“Come again?”

“My name. It’s I AM.”

“I am what? What does that mean? Can’t you have a normal name, like Thor, God of Thunder?”

“No.”

“What if he doesn’t believe me?”

“Throw your staff on the ground, and it will become a snake.”

“OK. Cool.” Ten minutes later… “Um, I Am? Pharaoh’s magicians can do the same trick.”

“Then turn water into blood.”

“All right.” Ten minutes later… “Yeah, they can do that, too.”

“Tell him I AM sent you. Let my people go.”

God lets the Moses-Pharaoh showdown drag on through ten plagues (which were miracle enough for the open-minded, but dismissed by the hard-hearted. Locusts? I mean, that’s not really a miracle. Hail? Have you seen my dented wagon? State Farm still owes me from last year.)

God always gives enough light for those with eyes to see. He’s not interested in arm-wrestling skeptics.

So is there any extra-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus? Yes, as it turns out, there is. Out of the four major historians of the first century Roman world (Tacitus, Josephus, Plutarch, and Suetonius), three mention Jesus. That is to say, three non-Christian—agnostic, apathetic, and/or antagonistic—historians (two Roman, one Jewish) comment on the life and death of an obscure, impoverished, rabble-rousing carpenter in a backwater province. Furthermore, a pair of cranky politicians dither about what to do with those crazy Christ-followers who worship Jesus as a god, despite Rome’s best efforts to torture them into recanting. A satirical playwright skewers Christians for their cuckoo naivety. And an anonymous artist sketches a donkey on a cross, graffiti captioned “Alexamenos worships his god.” It’s hard, on the face of evidence, to argue that Jesus never existed. But maybe it is just as hard to see him for who he is: Immanuel, God With Us.

For more information… Here’s a decent summary of the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence. And here’s a more detailed scholarly look at it.

Photo credit: wallygrom on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Kate’s Magic 8 Ball

Kate, circa 1986:

Magic 8 Ball, will I ever have a house with secret tunnels and an elevator?  Don’t count on it.

Will I live among gypsies in Spain?  My sources say no.

Be a teacher?  You may rely on it.

Marry the red-headed boy?  Outlook not so good.

Write a best-seller?  (Magic 8 Ball laughs hysterically.)  

Me:  Is this thing broken?

When you think about it, all of the deep questions we have about the future boil down to yes or no.  The combinations may be endlessly complicated (will my house in Spain among the gypsies have secret tunnels and will I be a novelist with red-headed children or a spinster teacher with 22 dogs) but bit by bit, they are all yes or no questions.  Well, duh!  But this is an important point.

That thing you want settled most right this minute is a binary proposition.  God, will I have children?  May I move to the mountains?  Should I go for a Ph.D?  Should I send my kids to boarding school in a far-away country?  For prayers big and small, we are waiting on a yes or a no.  (I’ve often heard  that the third option is “wait,” but really that’s just a slow yes, so we’re back to the first two.)  Two choices?  Gosh, that simplifies things.

Let’s take an easy example.  Take the boarding school question.  Let’s say your kids are driving you batty and you are really hoping for a yes.  You give the Magic 8 Ball a vigorous shake and it comes up “very doubtful.”  Well, bummer.  But you still have two options.

Option one: misery.  You look down the long years until they head off to college and realize that, nope, it’s not likely they are going to graduate early.  Nary a prodigy in the bunch.  You have another dozen years to go, and you are going to wake up every single day with a scowl, refine your yelling abilities, pout, and complain to anyone standing nearby.

Option two: contentment.  The prospect of a dozen years of misery sounds kind of, shall we say, miserable, so you decide to breathe deep and be grateful.  You hang up some cat posters about silver linings and cups half full and buck up.

But what if the Magic 8 Ball magically offers you positive words?  “It is decidedly so.  Without a doubt.  As I see it, yes.”  Now what?  You still have two options.

What will you choose in the waiting?  Misery, or hope?

Think about the big prayer of your heart ten years ago, twenty.  What was the answer?  What did you do with it?

Did misery ever add a day to your life, worry a happy hour to your day?  Was joy less joyful when you chose to be present in a good moment instead of bracing for a bad?  How many times do we wish for a time machine while we wait?  But even if you could see the future, you’re still looking at a pair of simple options.  It’s either going to be a yes, or it’s going to be a no.  And either way, you’ll have a choice.

I’m starting on a read-the-Bible in a year plan (check it out here — this is a great little app) and for a few days have been following Abraham’s story.  Now here was a guy facing a sloooow yes.

Abraham:  God, will I have children?

God:  Yes.

Abraham:  I’m like, old.

God:  Definitely not getting any younger.

Sarah:  I’ve got an idea.  There’s this maid…

Abraham:  That’s genius!

God:  sighs.

Abraham (like me) has trouble waiting joyfully.  I mean, he does wait.  Just not very placidly.  Maybe he paces a little, kicks things.  He and Sarah brainstorm a great way to give God a hand that involves sleeping with the help and goes, as expected, badly.  What if he’d just… waited?

What if I trusted, hoped, but didn’t spend all my time looking ahead?  What if I looked around instead, noticed the small gifts, embraced the season?  What if I chose life?

Abraham and Sarah’s ache was deep, as all the childless know.  There is a waiting — for healing, for reconciliation, for validation, even for death — that is painful.  No cat poster can fix what’s happening behind half the doors on your street.  And yet, no one can take away the choice we all have, every day.  Deuteronomy 30:19-20 lays it out.  “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days…”

So what’s the big question bugging you today?  Maybe it’s yes, maybe it’s no.

What will you do with it?

Whom do you love?

For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47, HCSB)

I’m hurt, and if I’m honest, I’m angry. Sad to say, there isn’t one without the other. When someone lets the sharp words fly, they slice me right off the vine. I’m not abiding any more, I’m cut off— from joy, from peace— shriveling, rotting, drying out. It’s so hard to choose the vine over the justified (in my mind) ugliness. Love? Love them? My lip curls, my heart hardens. I don’t want love. I want revenge.

But that’s not the way I see myself. I think of myself in kindly terms, as a noble-minded, sanctified child of God. Sanctimonious, more like. I’m the emperor with no clothes. I’m the pious Queen of Hearts. Off with her head! If I happen to glance in a mirror, I see a little girl hurt; I want to console, to coddle. It’s a fun house mirror, not true. A real mirror would show— I want to return evil for evil, painful blow for blow. I do not truly love.

Jesus’ prying questions expose a rancidness in my heart I’d rather not acknowledge. He knows, knows I am the one forgiven much but stingy with forgiveness in return. He knows that I need grace absolutely as much as the one who hurt me. After all, I sin against Him, but He gave up everything for me anyway.

Mother Teresa reportedly hung a poem on the wall of her Calcutta children’s home by a fellow named Kent Keith. The poem advises that although our motives may be questioned and our kindness rejected, we should do good, be honest, forgive, and love anyway.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 11.04.05 AM
By Manfredo Ferrari – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35010569

Hmm. Love is hard. Love anyway. Between me and God it’s clear, my heart is a long way from His kind of love.

You might say there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who love you, and those who do not, those who are like you, and those who are very different. One group is generous and gracious, the other often critical and mean-spirited. And yet, according to Jesus, there is only one way for us to respond, His way— with kindness, gentleness, and respect. In short, with love. As He says,

“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:43-44, HCSB)

Jesus’ questions for His audience at the Sermon on the Mount pack so much insight that they easily expand to press on me half a dozen more.  Whom do I love, personally, practically, with word and deed? Only the lovable? Do I pride myself on the kindness I lavish on a lucky few? Do I think of myself as praiseworthy for the way I treat my husband, my children, my parents, or my friends? Do I expect a deeply felt thank-you-very-much when I spontaneously serve my household or my church?  Well, don’t look at me for reward, Jesus seems to say. To love those who love you is to meet the bare minimum standard.  It’s not extraordinary.Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.59.54 AM

What is extraordinary is to love the person who makes me most uncomfortable. The one who just yesterday insulted me, the one who’s hostile and rude. To love both the people who flat-out sin against me and the people who look like they would if they had the chance. To love my political enemies and the irritating ones who won’t leave me alone, the one who betrayed me or the one who lies like a rug. That guy, he’s the one I ought to serve. That’s the Jesus way.

Fine. It’s easy enough to structure my life so that I just don’t cross paths much with unkind or scornful folks— at least not in my free time. Surely the extent of what Jesus expects is civility when it’s unavoidable, right? It’s the Miss Manners gospel— be ye polite. Surely we don’t have to seek out difficult people, sit next to them, invite them over on our day off?  Right?

There’s an awkward pause while I wait for an encouraging answer. It never comes. The only answer I hear is the patiently repeated question,

What are you doing out of the ordinary?

Extraordinary love starts when I quit licking my wounds and pray for my adversary. What might she need? What could I give?

As it turns out, loving unlovable people is kinda freeing— it flips my attitude on its head, replaces my grievances with something closer to joy. Who knew? Forgiving, service-oriented, beyond-the-ordinary love isn’t just powerful for the recipient and the watching world. It’s powerfully healing and life-giving for me, too.

In a sermon (“Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957), Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.54.50 AM“I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.” Even the most recalcitrant? Maybe Mr. King was thinking about angry Alabamans with their angry, snarling dogs, but I suspect when Jesus issued the challenge, He was thinking, too, about the likes of me.

If you love those who love you…

Whom do I love, anyway? Whom will I love on today?

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