Jesus: Myth or Reality?

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : a:0:{}

In recent months publicity surrounding the so-called Gospel of Judas and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have questioned the credibility of the Bible. David Bast addresses this challenge in two special programs featuring a discussion with New Testament scholar Dr. Robert Van Voorst. Today’s broadcast, the second in the series, “Jesus: Myth or Reality?” addresses some claims The Da Vinci Code and other works raise about Jesus and the Christian faith. One such claim is that the orthodox doctrine that Jesus was the Son of God was invented long after the New Testament was written. Professor Van Voorst responds.

Bast: So a lot of the so-called apocryphal books, or non-canonical gospels, are tinged with Gnosticism. There’s not a whole lot there of historical validity concerning Jesus.

Van Voorst: That’s right. A lot of it originates from the second to the fourth century. The New Testament apocrypha is what this literature is called as a group. It’s hidden books, books written later that are pretended to be by Jesus or the apostles but examination of their contents shows quite clearly that they’re not.

They had a very strong knowledge in the ancient church from about Paul’s time on of basically what is true Christianity and what is not. And religious movements, even though they pretend to be Christian, that would deny a doctrine like God made the world, God made the world good. Groups that came along saying, no, God didn’t make the world or make it good were rejected as Christian people who came along saying Jesus just seemed to be human but he really wasn’t like you and me. That was recognized as being outside the borders of legitimate Christian faith. And rightly so. People who claim that the resurrection did not involve the body of Jesus coming out of the tomb but just spirit rising and going to heaven ?” that was recognized as not being truly Christian.

Bast: So there was a rule of faith which lies actually beyond our Christian creeds and goes all the way back to the testimony of the apostles and was known by the early church and known by the early Christians that enabled them to measure these writings against the authentic ones.

Van Voorst: That’s right. The rule of faith begins to get formulated in apostolic times. It isn’t formally written down until the first generation after the apostles, especially when the struggle with Gnosticism comes in. Gnosticism presented a very strong challenge to the church because it pretended to be inside knowledge, inside secret tradition, real “Jesus stuff.” And the early church, in order to counter that, had to come up with a strong analysis of the content of the Christian faith: What makes something really Christian? What makes it not Christian?

So they came up with some basic rules: God exists. There’s one God. God made the world good. God in Jesus Christ came to save the world, and God at the end of time will redeem and recreate the world.

Bast: Right. And God in Jesus was really human and really divine, and really rose from the dead.

Van Voorst: That’s right.

Bast: And really died for the sins of the world.

Van Voorst: That’s correct.

Bast: This is the way these sub-Christian groups or non-Christian sects (or whatever we want to call them) tend to operate even into our day, don’t they? They come with a claim to secret knowledge, “Oh, you got the Bible, but you know what? That’s not enough. We have something more that our prophet has given us.”

Van Voorst: Right. Usually some secret key to unlock the hidden inner essence of the Bible that most people in the church (they say) don’t have, but we’ve got it, and we’ll give it, or sell it, to you.

Bast: This idea of secret traditions that “we” have suddenly uncovered is also in the news nowadays with the wild popularity of The DaVinci Code, both the book and the movie. The basic premise is that there is a giant conspiracy at the founding of Christianity, and now we’re only uncovering this sort of hidden agenda that’s been in operation. What do we say to that?

Van Voorst: It’s certainly a challenge ?” being so widely read and made into what might prove to be a rather popular movie. Part of the challenge is that a lot of people read the book and see the movie and simply believe it. In the age and time1 in which we live a lot of people are suspect of the Christian faith and especially organized religion, so it’s easy for them to think that organized Christianity way back was engaged in some conspiracy to hide the truth.

Bast: People love conspiracy theories anyway.

Van Voorst: Certain people love conspiracy theories. There’s something secret, there’s something that is very complimentary to me if I can figure out the secret, the conspiracy, it gives me sort of an inner knowledge.

Bast: I’m in the know. I have this inner knowledge.

Van Voorst: Yes, I’m in the know. I have this inner knowledge.

Bast: And I’m not being snookered like all these common folk.

Van Voorst: That’s right! Like everybody else in the mainstream. Conspiracy theories abound in all different aspects of life, not just found in Christianity or the religious world.

Bast: Let me ask you about some of the specific sort of contentions of the book and ask you to respond to those. Probably the most glaring is the idea that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and had children. And you’ll maybe find some more mainstream scholars who will say, “Well, Jesus as a normal Jewish man was probably married.”

Van Voorst: It’s possible although I think it’s not likely.

Bast: And of course the consensus, Christian tradition, is that he wasn’t.

Van Voorst: Yes.

Bast: How do you respond to that on historical grounds or New Testament grounds?

Van Voorst: Simply, we have no evidence that Jesus was married. Much of his teaching and his conduct seems to go against that. It’s the case that conspiracy theorists have very slim evidence to go on or none at all. They have to take what is there and twist it around, or add newer understandings that simply aren’t found there. For example, most scholars and historians looking at the figure of Mary Magdalene will say: “Okay, she was misunderstood in the second- and third-century church.” The tendency was to identify her with a prostitute when there’s no New Testament evidence of that. And it’s sort of the thing that the early church did misunderstand her.

Bast: In the medieval church she had become this great figure of the penitent, fallen woman.

Van Voorst: That’s right, the penitent, fallen woman now made good.

Bast: Yes, and in fact, her name or a version of it came into English as the word maudlin, meaning excessively tearful and weepy. So that’s a distortion. There’s no evidence that she was a particular or notorious sinner. She was demon-possessed according to the New Testament, but delivered by Jesus.

Van Voorst: That’s right, and there’s not a shred of evidence at all that she was married to Jesus.

Bast: And supremely, she’s the first witness of the resurrection.

Van Voorst: That’s right.

Bast: Another contention of The DaVinci Code is that the orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus was defined by Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, who rammed his view through the Council of Nicea and then killed perhaps any dissenters or at least suppressed the writings of any who disagreed with this idea that Jesus was the God-man, divine and human. Again, on historical grounds, how do we respond to that?

Van Voorst: On historical grounds, biblical scholars and historians simply disagree with that. There’s not a shred of truth in that assertion. The Christian belief that Jesus was both divine and human, was God’s Son come to earth, is very early. It’s fully attested and fully developed by the end of the first century.

Bast: Even in the New Testament.

Van Voorst: Even in the New Testament. It arises before the New Testament is written. Some of the leading New Testament scholars today, for example, Larry Hurtado, who teaches at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has written a very fine and well-received book arguing that devotion to Jesus as the Son of God comes very early in the history of Christianity, perhaps even within his own lifetime.

Bast: Before he rose from the dead even.

Van Voorst: Before the resurrection the seeds of devotion to Jesus as someone special, as God’s Son, as someone who goes far beyond what an ordinary human is, this happens before the resurrection. The resurrection is a catalyst that helps to cement this.

Bast: I was just reading Luke 5 this afternoon, the miraculous catch of fishes where Peter after this miracle falls at Jesus’ knees, Luke says, and addresses him as Lord and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Van Voorst: That’s right. One of the more poignant questions asked in the New Testament, quite often about Jesus in the Gospels, is, “Who is this? Who is this person that the winds and waves obey him?” And the answer to that is, even in that original incident, is that Jesus is far more than an ordinary human being.

Bast: When the early church was gathering the New Testament, there was some controversy over which books belonged and which writings did not belong. You touched on that a little bit earlier and said that there was a rule of faith they could kind of measure these writings against. Was there ever any active attempt to get rid of, or burn, or hide, or suppress the writings that were not considered apostolic and canonical?

Van Voorst: To answer this question we have to go back a little bit to see how the process of forming the New Testament begins. It really begins before they had any concept that there would be a New Testament. Paul, for example, writes letters to his churches, and other early Christian leaders in the first century write to their churches as well. And then the gospels are written, one, two, and three and four, and then the second century even more.

Bast: Those in the second century are not genuine gospels.

Van Voorst: Yes, that’s right. Those are not genuine gospels as the church considers genuine. But nevertheless by the end of the first century and moving on to the second century, you’ve got a lot of literature from early Christians about Jesus and about the early church. Much of this, the process of winnowing out what belongs in what we call the New Testament and what doesn’t, arises in the actual practice of the church. There was no committee and no council that just sat down to decide in some grand committee meeting of what’s going to be in the New Testament and what’s not, but it’s based upon the actual writing, the actual reception and use in churches. Churches received these Gospels and letters. They used them. They copied them. They circulated them more widely. These letters and gospels got a standing, a use, a continued use in the church, as being valuable, true and faithful.

Bast: So it was really a very natural process.

Van Voorst: It’s a natural, dare I say it, a human process.

Bast: It was almost like, it strikes, me the analogy of trials of medicine. You spread these out and you see if they work. And you have a lot of people taking it ?” almost a control group. And the ones that heal, the ones that give life, are the ones that are recognized as coming from God, as being the Word of God.

Van Voorst: That’s right. The ones that are recognized by churches and their leaders as being valuable and true Christian books, that is pretty much what we would call the first and the main cut for making what we call the New Testament. Other books that come later, that come from unknown groups, unknown churches, that come from individuals in the second and third century, even though they claim to be Christian or claim to be actually the words of Jesus, other Christians look at them in the first, second, and third century and they say: “These are not the words of Jesus because they do not agree with our basic rule of faith, the basic understanding of the Christian faith, and the basic literature that we already have.

Bast: And there’s actually a third set of writings, isn’t there? They came to be called the apostolic fathers and the anti-Nicean or before-Nicean fathers which are orthodox and are read for value and content but they’re not accorded the level of scripture, just as we today may read a favorite Christian writer who is explaining the Bible and who’s consistent, who’s teaching is consistent with the Bible, but we don’t accord that person status. So we can see all these things going all the way back to the very beginning.

Van Voorst: Yes, and even, interestingly enough, in the process of forming what we call the New Testament apocrypha, that is, books in the first four or five centuries that may have had a claim to be New Testament books, even among them there are the Gnostic books, gospels and letters and things that we talked about, but there are also other books (gospels, letters, and Acts of the Apostles) which are more or less perfectly orthodox. But the early church looked at these letters, and they concluded for a variety of reasons that: no, these things are not New Testamentish. They don’t fit the pattern of faith well enough. They haven’t been useful enough for Christians. Sometimes it was the case that some of these books were amenable for use by Gnostic groups or by anti-Christian groups. And the early church then looked at them and said, “They’re not for us.” Many times they concluded about these books that they’re okay to read, they are hidden away, which is what the word apocrypha really means. It’s the hidden books. The early church really made no effort at book burning, per se. It was just trying to survive and spread. It didn’t have the time to investigate heretics and to dig up their books and burn them. That simply wasn’t done. If that had been done, these books would not have survived until today, as they have, in a variety of means. We wouldn’t have a Gospel of Judas today ?” if the church had set out to suppress and burn. We’d have nothing and then people who argue for a conspiracy theory would have to argue doubly hard because there would be even less evidence to argue from.

Bast: Is there anything else you’d like to add that I didn’t touch on?

Van Voorst: If you want a further thought on conspiracy theory, it would be simply this: There is one place in the New Testament where conspiracy theory is launched about the resurrection of Jesus and that is at the end of Matthew where it is said in the Gospel of Matthew that early Jewish leaders in the time of Jesus thought that the New Testament was a conspiracy and that they said Jesus’ disciples had come to steal his body and proclaim him as risen from the dead. So there’s conspiracy theory and there’s anti-conspiracy argument that goes on in the Gospel of Matthew back and forth. But if the New Testament were based on a conspiracy, if the central event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ were in fact a conspiracy, the early church would never have let any mention or knowledge of that, any charge of that, come into the New Testament at all. The fact that it’s there is evidence that it is not based on a conspiracy but is actually anti-conspiratorial.

Bast: That’s a very interesting point. If they were going to suppress anything, they would have suppressed Matthew.

Van Voorst: Oh, sure, they would have just cut off the last page.

Bast: Yes. So we have good grounds for believing that what we believe is truth and not fairy tale or legend or myth.

Van Voorst: Yes, we have very good grounds in both history and belief and in the church. It’s not a matter that these things can be understood fully just by drawing historical method, but the Spirit uses this because we believe these things happened in history, that God acted in the past in actual events and in the person of Jesus. Because God did this, this is the way we reach back to understand. But history, as I’ve said, is always combined with faith. The two have to go together. Even historians who have no faith per se use certain assumptions. They sort of act on faith when they read the past.

Bast: For each of us, for every human life, it does come down to this, doesn’t it? You have to believe in something, even if that something is the absence of God or the non-existence of God.

Van Voorst: That’s right. Everybody has a faith and everybody lives on the basis of his or her faith. In the New Testament we have good evidence that points us to Jesus Christ.

Bast: I often think of one of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis, that sort of sums up this whole business where he says somewhere (and he struggled too with this question, Is it true? Is it another myth?)

Van Voorst: Oh, yes. He believed when he when he was young that it was a myth.

Bast: Sure, and he himself was an expert in myths.

Van Voorst: Yes, in his whole life he was.

Bast: And what he said at one point was, “Well, if it isn’t true, I believe it is, but if it isn’t, it ought to be because it’s better than any other story ever written.”

an Voorst: That’s right. If the Christian faith is a myth or even humanly speaking a fraud, it is the grandest myth and the grandest fraud ever perpetrated. It’s truer than any fraud can be.

Bast: Absolutely. We want to once again thank Dr. Robert Van Voorst of Western Theological Seminary who’s been my special guest on these two Words of Hope programs that have focused on the reliability of the New Testament and the historicity of its portrait of Jesus Christ.