No other person in history has been the subject of more debate about his identity than Jesus. The life of one man, said to have been born two thousand years ago in Palestine, has meant different things to different people. To some he is a New Age hippie, to others a religious martyr, yet others a misunderstood philosopher-poet or otherwordly moral sage.
The identity of Jesus may be debated, but what is not unclear is the monumental influence he has had over history. When famous talk-show host Larry King was asked who he would most like to interview from all of history, one of the first personalities he named was Jesus. Why? And what would he have asked him? King’s response: “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin born, because the answer to that question would define history.”
King is not alone in his estimation of Jesus. Without writing a single line, Jesus has inspired effects which lie beyond the reach of any dictator or philosopher. Lacking money or military might, his life has been the hinge upon which history has turned. He has set more pens in motion and furnished themes for more lectures, discussions, songs, works of art, and scholarly volumes than any figure of ancient or modern times.
Whether we are religious or not, the life of Jesus invites our attention. For his imprint upon history has not been because of the enduring relevance of the answers he gave to life’s deepest questions, but also for the compelling uniqueness of his claims. Of all the personalities, past and present, historians have suggested that Jesus is unique in the way he caused his contemporaries to ask not just “Who is this man?” but “What is he?”. Jesus did not just offer answers, he boldly claimed that he himself was the answer to our search for truth and meaning. If history can be trusted, Jesus claimed the most radical title of all: to be God.
The pace and pressure of modern life can hider us from facing questions that matter. But if there is any truth at all to Jesus’ claim, we do not merely have the luxury of merely doubting who he said he was – we must be absolutely certain. For the stakes are high: if he is God, then Jesus defines life’s very essence and destiny.
So the question surfaces – where do we begin to investigate who Jesus is really? We are confronted with several options:
1. Jesus never claimed to be God but instead his followers created the idea: therefore his claims are nothing more than legend.
2. Jesus claimed to be God but knew that he was not: therefore he was a liar.
3. Jesus thought he was God but was not: therefore he was a lunatic.
How trustworthy is the history of Jesus’ life? Can we really know that the traditional reports are built on the character and actions of a real person? Even if we leave aside the accounts found in the Bible, the picture of Jesus remains incredibly sharp. From the varied ancient sources and authors, including the writings of Roman and Jewish historians at the time, the person and message of Jesus is well attested. Otto Betz, concludes: “No serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.”
But if we want to truly ask what a person is like we must ask those who are closest to that person. And the early dating and robust historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts reliably portray Jesus’ life from the perspective of those who talked and lived with him. The credibility of their reports has persuaded even skeptical historians like Will Durant to remark: “That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the gospels.”
If the gospel accounts present us with a portrait that can withstand the scrutiny of archaeological and historical investigation greater than any other ancient document, we must confront the testimony of its authors head-on. Could Jesus have deliberately misled others or duped his followers into propagating a lie?
But the explanation will not fit with the data of Jesus’ psychological profile. He lived a selfless life of compassion and bracing authenticity. Jesus was passionate about truth and was more concerned with the predicament of the poor and marginalized than positions of political power. Liars lie out of selfish ambition, to secure money, personal fame or control. But Jesus had no conceivable interest in lying. It brought him hatred, rejection, misunderstanding, persecution, torture and, in the end, a criminal’s death. People lie, but very rarely will people lie to the point of their of own death.
We know that those who sincerely claim to have the traditional attributes of god almost always have some kind mental disorder or are out of touch with reality. What about Jesus? Was he confused or unwell? The problem with this explanation is that Jesus did not display any of the marks that attend this kind of mental illness. His personality did not show egotism, narcissism, or unpredictability. He was both able to stump proud religious leaders with his creative and practical wisdom yet demonstrated such gentleness and humility that children rushed to play with him.
Even today, the moral integrity of his character and insight continues to captivate both skeptic and religious alike. Prominent historian W. E. H. Lecky suggested that “in Jesus’ three years of active teaching, he did more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists”. It would be wrong to dismiss the mind responsible for such profound teaching as mentally ill.
It is easy to be content with a picture of Jesus in our imagination that does not offend us or demand our lives. but the Jesus of history so shattered the perceptions and ideas of those around him that the world was not the same again. It was in fact, the extraordinary nature of his claims – to forgive sins, to exist from eternity, and to invite worship that so offended the religious establishment that Jesus was put to death.
Christianity is unique in that at its heart lies the cross. Unlike any other event in history the cross looms as a mystery because it offends everything we exalt – self over principle, power over meekness, comfort over sacrifice, anger over forgiveness. Yet Jesus predicted his own death and saw it as the central purpose for his life. For in the cross, the plan of God was revealed and the greatest problem of all was address: our separation from God.
The essence of Christianity is not a moral code or a list of actions we must perform to know and be accepted by God. Our sin is so serious and our wills are bent so completely towards living for ourselves and against God that it took Jesus’ own loving self-sacrifice to restore and rescue us. The message of Christianity is that to know God, we must give up trying to be good enough for God and trust in what Christ has done for us.
But we studying Jesus we are left with the most basic question of all: however powerful the message of Jesus, once he had been publicly killed, why would anyone want to claim as their Lord and King? Nobody said that after the death of any other Jewish martyr. The fact that the early Christians went against every precedent in falling to replace Jesus with someone else demands an explanation. When Jesus was proclaimed throughout the early ancient world, the proclamation was not “Love your enemies” but “Christ has risen!”. For the resurrection of Jesus demonstrated both the confirmation of his message and a real hope for all those that trusted in him.
In answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” there is no neutral position. To not decide is to decide to by default. For the debate over who Jesus is will continue, but it is a simple fact that each of us will not. We all face a certain destiny, for those that choose to follow and embrace Jesus as their Lord and King, hope is found in the firmness of his promises, consolation in the reality of his presence, and all the hungers of the heart and mind meet their ultimate fulfillment.
Jesus words still speak to us today: “Whoever comes to me, I will never cast out. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” (John 6:37,40)