Virtually all historians today believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person in first-century Palestine. However, that’s about as far as the agreement goes; there are many different answers to the question, “who was Jesus?” presented in our world today. Maybe you’ve heard some of them:
- He was a really good teacher who died an unfortunate death on a cross
- We can’t know much about the real Jesus because his followers made up many of the details of his life
- He tricked people into thinking he was God
- He was a prophet
- He was God in human form who died and rose again
How can we know who Jesus was? Historians and theologians have given us four possible options for who Jesus was: legend, liar, lunatic, or Lord. Which option do you believe?
Many people today believe that Jesus’s followers made up the supernatural details of his life: his miracles, his resurrection, and his claims to be God. The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John found in the Bible) are products of that deception, so we shouldn’t believe what they have to say about Jesus. But does this conclusion make sense?
Most scholars place the writing of all four gospels (the biographies of Jesus in the Bible) within the first century AD. That means the latest gospel (most likely, John) was written no more than sixty years after Jesus’s death and supposed resurrection. Many scholars put the earliest gospel (most likely, Mark) within forty years of Jesus’s life. The gospels were written soon after the life of Jesus, which means that people who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life could have fact-checked the stories told in the Bible – specifically, the story of Jesus rising from the dead and appearing to many different people. The Christian movement would have died out quickly if lots of eyewitnesses came out saying that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead, yet we see no evidence of that happening.
The followers of Jesus had no good motivation for making up Jesus’s resurrection. The early Christian church was persecuted for telling others that they had seen Jesus rise from the dead. All but one of the twelve disciples were executed because of their faith. Many who converted to Christianity did so at the expense of their socio-economic status, personal safety, and even relationships with their own families. Why would Jesus’s early followers be willing to die for a lie that they made up? The historical evidence suggests that the early church believed that Jesus was the risen Lord from the start.
There are non-biblical historical sources from soon after Jesus’s life that call Jesus a sorcerer and magician; even his critics did not deny that he performed supernatural signs! They attributed those signs to everything but God, but the point remains that we cannot easily reject the miracles that Jesus performed.
So, if Jesus’s followers didn’t lie, maybe Jesus did. Is it possible that when Jesus claimed to be God, he was trying to deceive people?
Firstly, Jesus consistently pointed to his miracles as evidence for his claims of being “sent by the Father.” If he was truly blaspheming, why would God allow him to drive out demons and heal diseases in promotion of the kingdom of God? Of course, the greatest miracle of all was his resurrection, which fulfilled many of his own predictions. If the resurrection did not occur, Jesus would have been made out to be a liar, his disciples would have never risked their lives to spread the message, and Christianity would have never started.
Secondly, Jesus’s life fulfilled many prophecies written in ancient Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament of the Bible), specifically about where/how he was born, how he was going to die, and what his death would mean for mankind. Many of those fulfilled prophesies were things that Jesus could not control (i.e., the events surrounding his birth). That means that he could not use the Old Testament prophecies to deceive others into believing that He was God.
Thirdly, Jesus was put to death for claiming to be God. He was questioned by both Jewish and Roman authorities and was given opportunities by both of them to deny his claims to divinity, but he did not. At this point, all of his followers had abandoned him for fear that they too would be punished. He had nothing to gain by continuing his lie, and everything to lose. Why would he continue to claim divinity, especially when it cost him his life?
Maybe Jesus didn’t deceive others on purpose – maybe he was just delusional. Maybe he truly believed he was divine, but wasn’t. In fact, many people in history have believed themselves to be God. How is Jesus any different?
Once again, this argument cannot account for Jesus’s miracles, his fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, and his resurrection. It also cannot account for the fact that those who heard Jesus’s teachings were often amazed by his words and wisdom. He was viewed as one who taught with authority. He often stumped the smartest people of his day when he talked about spiritual things. This is evidence that he was not delusional, and therefore not a lunatic.
Wait a second.
You might be wondering why Jesus: moral teacher? or Jesus: prophet? isn’t listed as one of the options. Think about it, though – if Jesus came and claimed to be God and that wasn’t true, then he’s teaching lies, which makes him a bad teacher. It also makes him a false prophet. If it is true that he is God, then he is much more than just a good teacher or a prophet – he was God in human form. So, if Jesus wasn’t a legend, a liar, a lunatic, or just a good teacher, who was he?
Our final option is that Jesus is who he says he is: God in the flesh, the risen Lord, the annointed one of Israel, one with God the Father. “Jesus is Lord” is the most plausible conclusion, given the evidence.
- Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy written hundreds of years before his birth. (See Isaiah 53 & Psalm 22 for examples.)
- Jesus taught with authority and wisdom.
- Jesus performed miracles and signs to show that he was from God.
- Jesus claimed to be God, even when it cost him his life.
- His followers claimed that he rose from the dead and appeared to over 500 different people before ascending into heaven.
- His followers proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, even when it cost them their lives.
- Written history of his life circulated widely only a few decades after his death and resurrection, claiming that he was God in the flesh who died and rose again. Instead of being immediately falsified, it helped Christianity grow.
- Millions of people throughout history have claimed to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus.
If Jesus is Lord, it has a profound impact on your life. It means that what he taught about salvation is true:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
Jesus paid the punishment for your sins by dying on the cross in your place. When he rose from the dead three days later, he defeated death. When you surrender your life to him, you get to have a relationship with God and live eternally with him. Jesus is Lord and he loves you. Will you consider loving him in return? Click on the banners below to learn more about how to surrender to Jesus.
The content of this article is loosely adapted from an argument made in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
For more information on non-biblical evidence for Jesus’s life, check out this article called, “Corroborating Historical Evidence of the New Testament.”
For more information on the historicity of the resurrection, read this article or watch this video:
Check out this video.