Matt Connally is a pastor in the United States. He received an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Bachelors of Journalism from The University of Texas, where he served as editor of The Daily Texan from 1991-92. He has also worked with Campus Crusade for Christ for several years both in the United States and Asia.
The different answers divide nations and shape history
What happened 2000 years ago in a small Jewish village of an oppressed vassal state of the Roman Empire? Many worldviews offer different answers to that question. Indeed, they zealously disagree on how to even ask the question. Which makes sense, for the authority to interpret the past wields tremendous power in shaping the future. This is just as true about ancient events as it is about conflicts of the past century and even the past decade.
Ideally we would all aspire to lay bias aside and hunger only for the truth. And yet when it comes to Christ we are still immediately confronted with huge disagreements, for many will insist on not even asking the question, "What has God done?" In most American universities Naturalism reigns and so there is really no room at all for patronizing the supernatural. After all, if one believed that the Creator of the universe was manifest in the flesh 2000 years ago, that teaching would be like a battering ram against the door of the question of origins…to say the least. Naturalism would evaporate.
So what do we do with this man named Jesus? (From any point of view, that is still a good question.) Naturalists strive to objectify his story strictly from anthropological and psychological stances, and assume that supernatural events simply did not occur. One could certainly argue that this stance is not based in blind faith, but it is undeniably based on a presupposition.
Regardless, for everyone who does acknowledge God there are still many different claims on the life of Jesus Christ. So at this time of celebrating his birth, a review of the competing approaches to his story is entirely appropriate. We simply want to ask, upon what basis does a particular religion make claims about history? What constitutes good, balanced news? We will look at five vantage points for understanding the Christmas story, and consider how we might weigh and compare the basis for believing them.
1) The Muslim stance: What did Mohammed say the angel told him?
One very popular stance in the world is that of Islam: "What does the Quran say happened?" The Quran is the holy, inspired, infallible word of God for Muslims, and although it agrees with the Bible in many instances, at other points there are huge contradictions. Regarding Jesus Christ, it says that he was not God born in the flesh. Although it does say that he was the messiah, it is with a very different meaning than the Jewish and Christian meaning. For according to Mohammed Jesus was merely a great prophet—though not as great as Mohammed himself. Nor was he crucified and resurrected on the third day, according to the Quran.
That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah"; but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. (Koran, Surah 4:157, Yusuf Ali translation)
Islam does venerate the Bible, but all authority for determining which parts of the Bible are true (which excludes crucial events in the Old Testament as well, such as the Passover) rests upon what the Prophet Mohammed said the angel Gabriel told him beginning in the year 610 A.D. His followers wrote down the revelations to produce the Muslim holy book.
One compelling aspect of this position is its simplicity and exactness. Unlike the variations in style in the gospel accounts, the Quran offers Mohammed’s testimony of an angel’s message. Nevertheless, it is one hundred percent hearsay, for Mohammed did not claim to witness any of the events about which he testified. You just have to take his word for Gabriel’s message, even when he dramatically edits the eyewitness accounts of dozens of others going back over 2000 years. So in answer to questions about why to believe that any of the Bible is true and why parts of it are false, and why to believe that certain events happened and others did not, the answer is, "Because that’s what Mohammed said the angel told him."
But of course Muslims believe that the Quran itself bears witness to its divine nature. That is to say that God’s Word testifies to itself, and when one reads it the truth is obvious. Many religions, including Christianity, make such claims about their Scriptures, and although the argument is circular it is not "viciously" circular. To the contrary, it would be irrational to say that when God speaks his words must be judged and measured against some other authority.
That is reasonable, but it does not necessitate the absence of evidence. God could tell us that something happened, and, separately, he could also give us evidence for it. That would be similar to, for example, a history teacher telling his students that the Holocaust happened, and, separately, offering his students many testimonies about the Holocaust from soldiers and victims who experienced and witnessed it.
For this article, the main point is that the Quran offers no evidence for its version of the life of Christ. A follower believes its version of history is true because by faith he knows it to be true.
2) The Hindu stance: What can we learn? What sounds fruitful?
A second very popular option, less precise than either Islam or Christianity and often even deliberately subjective, might be the views of Hinduism and Buddhism. Here we will just focus on the former. Hinduism pays much more attention to Christ’s moral and ethical teachings than to the historical events of his life. They say that whether he was a god (though not the one and only God as the Bible teaches) or a prophet (as the Quran teaches) is less important than the deep spiritual insight he brought. What actually happened 2000 years ago is almost irrelevant for contemporary Hindus, whose religion reaches back into the second millennium B.C., and the more appropriate question to ask is, "What can we learn?"
"Hinduism does not believe in conversion of people," writes Jayaram V at hinduwebsite.com. "In the Bhagavad gita Lord Krishna preaches not to follow another's dharma however superior it may be for it would hamper ones spiritual progress."
The father of the Krishna Consciousness Movement (a.k.a. the Hare Krishna Movement), AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, said that Krishna and Christ are the same.
Prabhupada further says: "'Christ' is another way of saying Krsta and Krsta is another way of pronouncing Krishna, the name of God…the general name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, whose specific name is Krishna. Therefore whether you call God 'Christ', 'Krsta', or 'Krishna', ultimately you are addressing the same Supreme Personality of Godhead…Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu said: namnam akari bahu-dha nija-sarva-saktis. (God has millions of names, and because there is no difference between God's name and Himself, each one of these names has the same potency as God.)"2
Hinduism can be hard to define, however, and there are alternative versions of the history of Jesus Christ. One popular belief holds that Jesus actually came to India and died in Kashmir.
Shri K.R. Narayanan, president of India from 1997 to 2005, said, "Jesus was actually for the whole world, not just for Christianity, and for all races, and for all people and His message went to the hearts of people everywhere. And particularly, He was a revolutionary in His ideas in His time--and His ideas still remain revolutionary.3"
Again we ask, upon what are such beliefs about Jesus based—upon the New Testament gospels? Which parts of them? Obviously it could not be all parts, such as when Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."4 What are we placing faith in?
Some of these questions may not seem appropriate, for comparing orthodox Christianity with Hinduism might be like comparing apples and guitars. But this is certainly a fair question: What do we believe about Jesus? Do we believe what a Hindu teacher tells us about him? Why? Objectively, there is no more reason to take such a teacher’s word for what events took place 2000 years ago than to take Mohammed’s word for it, than to take Joseph Smith’s word for it (see on Mormonism below), than to take anyone’s word for it…unless we are again confronted with a supernatural revelation that we simply know that we know, by faith, to be true.
These first two faiths, those of Islam and Hinduism, are distinct religions with unique cultures and histories. But what about other faiths which call themselves Christian but which differ markedly from orthodox Christianity? We will consider these in our next two sections.
3) The Gnostic stance: What have people claimed that private revelations told them?
In addition to the New Testament Gospels, there are other stories about the life of Christ that originated in Israel during the second and third centuries: the Gnostic Gospels, made familiar recently by The Da Vinci Code. But once again Gnostics asked for blind faith and offered no evidence whatsoever for their teachings about the life of Jesus. For Gnostic Christians the question to ask about his story was, "What have people claimed that angels and visions and secret encounters told them?" For the very basis of Gnosticism was not historical events or objective facts but instead esoteric and mystical revelations given to the elite.
"These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke, and that Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down," begins The Gospel of Thomas. "And He said: ‘Whoever finds the meaning of these words will not taste death.’"
Similarly, the Gospel of Judas begins, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover."
We do not have the beginning of the Gospel According to Mary, but the following passage shows what it claims to be based upon:
And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me, Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the mind is there is the treasure. I said to Him, Lord, how does he who sees the vision see it, through the soul or through the spirit? The Savior answered and said, He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind that is between the two that is what sees the vision…”
Note that once again she did not claim to see this with her eyes but mystically. For Gnostics believed secret knowledge trumped all.
“We know that Gnostic teachers challenged the orthodox in precisely this way,” writes Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, one of the world’s leading scholars on Gnosticism. “While, according to them, the orthodox relied solely on the public, exoteric teaching which Christ and the apostles offered to ‘the many,’ Gnostic Christians claimed to offer, in addition, their secret teaching, known only to the few.”5
And when those private revelations contradict the public accounts, Gnosticism gives the former authority. “It asserts the superiority of Gnostic forms of secret tradition—and hence, of Gnostic teachers—over that of the priests and bishops, who can offer only ‘common’ tradition,” says Pagels. “Further, because earlier traditions, from this point of view, are at best incomplete, and at worst simply false, Gnostic Christians continually drew upon their own spiritual experience—their own gnosis [knowledge]—to revise and transform them.”6
As the New Testament was being written Christian leaders were already battling against such teachers, and as the church grew it continued to take them head on. “Heresy hunters like Irenaeus [130-202 A.D.] found Gnostics particularly insidious and difficult to attack,” writes Professor Bart. D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, another leading Gnostic scholar: “The problem was that you couldn’t reason with a Gnostic to show him the error of his ways: He had secret knowledge that you didn’t! If you said that he was wrong, he could shrug it off and point out that you simply didn’t know.”7
Once again, you “couldn’t reason with a Gnostic” because their faith had no basis in reason.
4) The stance of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Mormons: What have people claimed that angels and/or supernatural insight have told them?
There are many other faiths that call themselves the true Christians, distinct from and more enlightened than orthodox Christianity, which considers them to be cults. These faiths supplement the Bible with additional, private revelations with which their teachers claim both to rescue the followers from false doctrine and to clarify who Jesus Christ really was. Here is a very brief summary of three such faiths—Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Mormons—given as examples of how religious leaders continue to lay claim to secret revelations which give them authority to reinterpret the Bible.
Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion that came to be known as Jehovah’s witnesses was started by Charles Taze Russell in the late 19th century. He taught that Jesus was a second god with a mysterious angelic background. As his followers wrote years later, “The true Scriptures speak of God’s Son, the Word, as ‘a god.’ He is a ‘mighty god,’ but not the Almighty God, who is Jehovah.”8
Jehovah’s Witnesses have many other doctrines which differ from orthodox Christianity, but they all rest on this primary one concerning the nature and identity of Christ.
What is this teaching based upon? They mysterious insight given to Charles Russell at an even more mysterious secondary presence of Christ that Russell said began in the late nineteenth century. As his successor, Joseph Rutherford wrote in his book Creation, “The second presence of Christ dates from about 1874. From that time forward many of the truths long obscured by the enemy began to be restored to the honest Christian.”9
Christian Science. After feeling miraculously recovered from a severe spinal injury in 1866, a woman named Mary Baker Eddy devoted her life to what she considered the discovery of Christian Science. “I then withdrew from society about three years,” she wrote in her autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, “to ponder my mission, to search the Scriptures, to find the Science of Mind that should take the things of God and show them to the creature, and reveal the great curative Principle—Deity.”10
In 1879 she founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. Among the things she was to reveal on her mission, of particular concern to orthodox Christians was her denial—though foggy—of the deity of Christ. “The Christian who believes in the First Commandment is a monotheist. Thus he virtually unites with the Jew’s belief in one God and recognizes that Jesus Christ is not God as Jesus Christ himself declared, but is the Son of God.”11 Later she somewhat clarified her teaching: “The spiritual Christ was infallible; Jesus, as material manhood, was not Christ.”12
Mormons. The Mormon Church, more properly called the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, supplements the Bible with three other books in its canon of authoritative Scripture (the “Four Standard Works” they call them): Doctrine and Covenants, The Pearl of Great Price, and the initial volume, The Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, said The Book of Mormon was a translation of golden plates which the angel Moroni showed him were buried in a hill near his home in Palmyra, New York, in 1827. Moroni also showed him “two stones in sliver bowls” that joined together to form a large pair of spectacles that Smith used to translate the plates, which he said were engraved by a pre-Columbian prophet-historian, named Mormon, from an early American civilization. Smith said that after he dictated the translation he returned the plates to Moroni, but he also obtained signed affidavits from eleven witnesses who said they saw the plates either physically or in a vision.
What do Mormons teach about Jesus Christ that differs from the Bible? That he was the spirit-brother of Satan and involved in sibling rivalry. When God put forth a plan of salvation for the world, Lucifer offered his own plan. God chose Jesus, who accepted the Father’s plan and offered to implement it as savior. He was rewarded for his faithfulness by becoming the ruler of this earth. He was also a polygamist with three wives, and one of many gods. As Parley P. Pratt, one of Smiths twelve appointed Apostles put it, “Each of these gods, including Jesus Christ and his Father, being in possession of not merely an organized spirit, but a glorious body of flesh and bones.”13
There have been and still are many other claims to new divine revelations about who Jesus was and what he did. In the past half century religious leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Shoko Asahara have all offered new teachings. In every case these teachings are based, as always, in private, mysterious encounters with the divine.
So how do all of these versions of Jesus Christ compare to the original testimonies about him? And of particular interest for this article, how does the basis for such new teachings compare to the basis for the Bible’s teaching?
5) The early Christian stance: What did the eyewitnesses claim to see and hear?
We can define orthodox Christians simply as those who adhere to the early Christian ecumenical creeds, including the Apostles Creed (2nd century A.D.) and the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.), and who hold to the Bible and the Bible alone as the sole source of doctrine and guidance. As one of Jesus apostles, Paul, put it: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” 14 Paul chastised one of the churches for being gullible on this matter: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.”15
The apostle Peter likewise warned the churches that there always have been and will continue to be false teachers: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies.” He told them to hold to the gospel and to nothing else, for, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”16
So the basis for the early church creeds and for all Christian belief lays in asking: “What does the Bible say happened?”
What is distinctive about this understanding of Jesus is that it is based on eyewitness testimony. As one fisherman put it, “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands…what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you.”17
According to the New Testament writers, they saw God manifested in the flesh. Indeed, throughout the entire Bible, although angels and prophets at times give mystical revelations about the future, when it comes to what God has said and done in the past he always only reveals himself directly, through action in history, testified to by eyewitnesses. Thus he is Immanuel, God with us.
No other religion even tries to make such an audacious claim. They are all entirely dependant upon esoteric, mystical revelations.
From the very beginning there were similar claims of mystical revelations and visions about Christ, which eventually developed into the religion we call Gnosticism or Gnostic Christianity. But the Church leaders rejected these out of hand and relied solely upon eyewitness testimony. And so, for example, when a physician named Luke went to write an account for a friend of his concerning the news of Jesus, he began by stating his sources:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4).
Together with the other three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and John—the church saw these as four different views of the same events, perhaps very comparable to how a director will use several cameras to shoot the same scene for a movie. Although they have variations in style and differ in what details they present and what they emphasize, they weave together into a singular historical record of astonishing depth and complexity (especially when read in light of the Old Testament). In fact, as historian Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez explains, the early church highlighted and was encouraged by the differences.
The early Christians were well aware of these differences and that was precisely the reason why they insisted in using more than one book. They did this as a direct response to the challenge of Marcion [a Gnostic teacher] and Gnosticism. Many Gnostic teachers claimed that the heavenly messenger had trusted his secret knowledge to a particular disciple, who alone was the true interpreter of the message. 18
Of course, once again none of the events can be proved, and faith is still required. But it is not blind faith in a mystical revelation about history. The difference is between God doing something and God telling us what he did. The uniqueness of the early Christian stance is simply that we have faith that God has revealed himself in history, walking with us. “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’”19
What happened 2000 years ago? In answering that question, the Christian faith is the only one that lays claim not to mystical and esoteric revelations, or to deep spiritual insight, or even to presuppositions, but to eyewitness accounts of historical events. When it comes to what God has said and done in the past, the God of the Bible is the only one who does not ask for blind faith, but instead asks for reasoned faith.
In both the Old and New Testaments, whenever God spoke to someone he showed them great respect for being intelligent and capable of understanding and responding to him. Consider how he spoke to the teenage peasant named Mary and told her she was going to give birth to the messiah. She is not portrayed the way Thomas Paine sees her, as a naive, ignorant, gullible girl who is not capable of thinking for herself ( see the introduction to the Special Focus). There is no patronizing or condescension or anything less than the showing of high esteem for an intelligent, wise, confident young woman.
Similarly, when Jesus spoke to religious leaders he made it clear that he expected excellent, fiercely honest reasoning from them, and rebuked them for letting their pride and greed govern their beliefs. He told them very plainly that they could not see or think clearly because they were not owning up to their lust for authority and power: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.”20
The point is that in and with the Bible God offers evidence for who he is and what he has done, and expects people to respond intelligently and with reason, which includes being fully alert to how our motives can influence and even deceive us.
Today many continue to lift up lofty ideas and offer contradictory interpretations of the life of Jesus Christ, but no one can effectively ignore the one who claimed to be King of the Jews. In both our private and public struggles to reconcile freedom and justice, one way or the other we will all have to take a position on the gospel, which reads not like entertaining fiction but like a good news story.
Are the gospels authentic?
In the above article I did not offer any arguments for the authenticity of the gospels as eyewitness accounts. I merely made the observation that the Judeo-Christian faith is the one and only one that even tries to make such a claim—to be rooted in historical events instead of in mystical revelations.
But the reader should certainly know that many scholars have questioned and assaulted the genuineness of the New Testament, especially in the past century and never more so than in the last 20 years. They argue that the gospels in particular were religious and political propaganda disguised as historical record, and that they have no more basis in eyewitness testimony than do any other religions. In fact, the two Gnostic scholars that I quoted, Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, favor this view, which generally says that the New Testament gospels and the Gnostic gospels only appear to be different because orthodox Christianity won the political struggle. But appearances aside, the argument goes, all the stories in fact have a similar overall evolution.
That is the only sort of explanation that fits into a naturalistic view of history.
So here I simply want recommend some books that both defend against such attacks and offer much evidence on which to base a reasoned faith in the veracity of the Biblical account.
For an excellent, rigorous, examination of the evidence for the authenticity of the gospels, one could do no better than Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2006). A meticulous work, it is not a fast read and perhaps not for the average lay person, but nevertheless provides an excellent introduction to modern scholarship on the subject. For the lay reader a wonderful introduction would be Lee Stobel’s The Case for Christ (1998) and more recently, The Case for the Real Jesus (2007). The later includes a good summary of the arguments for the former, as well as a list of helpful websites.
For a scholarly defense against the liberal academic treatments of the New Testament, one of the best is Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (2006). Evans writes for the lay person, and interacts with recent work from the hyper-liberal Jesus Seminar as well as the Gnostic scholars. “What I find particularly troubling is that a lot of the nonsense comes from scholars,” he writes. “We expect tabloid pseudoscholarship from the quacks, but not from scholars who teach at respectable institutions of higher learning.” (p. 16) Another excellent book on the subject for the lay reader is Darrell Bock’s The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities. (2006).
Throughout all such investigation we must keep in mind, well reasoned, that it is by faith that we believe any of the testimonies to be not just true but also the inspired, inerrant, word of God. These testimonies brought a sudden and awesome transformation first to Israel, then to the entire Greco-Roman world. And they continue to sweep the nations with revolutionary impact. For his-story preaches nothing less than the power of salvation. As a former persecutor of the church put it:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:3-11)
1The Age of Reason. Thomas Paine. 1795. Part 2, chapter 2.
4The Gospel According to John 14:6
5The Gnostic Gospels. Elaine Pagels. Vintage Books. 1979. pp. 14.
6IBID pp. 23
7The Gospel of Judas. National Geographic Society. Commentary by Bart D. Ehrman. Edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst. National Geographic. Washington D.C. 2006. pp. 88.
8The Truth Shall Make You Free, Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 1943. pp. 47.
9Quoted from The Kingdom of the Cults, by Walter Martin, edited by Ravi Zacharias. Pp. 61.
10Retrospection and Inspection. Mary Baker Eddy. pp. 24-25. http://www.mbeinstitute.org/PWIntro.htm
11Science And Health, With Key To The Scriptures. Mary Baker Eddy. 1875, revised through 1910. pp. 152.
12Miscellaneous Writings, 1883-1896. Mary Baker Eddy. pp. 84.
13Key to the Science of Theology. Parley P. Pratt. 1855. pp. 44 [1973 ed.]
152 Corinthians 11:14
162 Peter 1:16171 John 1:1-3
The one exception to this would of course be the account of creation in Genesis since, of course, no eyewitnesses could be present. However, Genesis was written by Moses as God directed him, and hundreds of thousands of witnesses saw the spectacular and thunderous signs when God spoke to Moses both on Mt. Sinai and in the Tabernacle. Much of the rest of Genesis can lay claim an oral history of eyewitness accounts.
18The Story of Christianity. Justo L. Gonzalez. Prince Press. 1984. pp. 62-63.
19The Gospel According to Matthew 1:2320IBID chapter 23, verses 26-27.
Copyright 2007 Matt Connally