Who Was Jesus?

by Steve May, Beamsville, Ontario, Canada

One of the biggest challenges to the Christian faith in our world is the question of the place and person of Jesus Christ. Who was he? Was he just another prophet a great moral teacher, a failed revolutionary or was he the unique expression of God on earth--the only begotten of the Father?

The December 21, 1992, issue of Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine asked boldly on its cover WHO WAS JESUS?

The feature article that followed had the subtitle "New Theories offer starkly different visions of a great religion's central figure."

The article reviews several widely accepted and recently published books that give rather untraditional pictures ofJesus of Nazareth. Each claims to give new insight or a vision of Jesus that is closer to the real story than the gospel records. Several claim to be based on "new discoveries."

In this article I will review some of those "new" visions of Jesus and point to problems with these and other similar views of Jesus. History, reason, and faith call us to challenge the theories of this revisionist scholarship. First I'll summarize these views briefly from the Maclean's article itself.

1.Barbara Thiering is the author of the book, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, published in June, 1992. She is a lecturer in theology at Sidney University. According to Thiering, Jesus

was born, according to the modern calendar, in the year 7 BC, in a religious community near the Qumran plateau, 25 km. east of Jerusalem. His mother conceived him while she was engaged to be married, at a time when people in the community she lived in still considered her to he a virgin. As a result, some regarded her son as illegitimate. In later life, he married twice and fathered three children. Emerging as a religious leader, he was arrested for infringing the rules of Judaism. As punishment, he was sentence to death, but survived a bungled execution. His loyal followers helped him to escape and he spent the rest of his life in hiding, meeting with friends and helping his associates to write documents that would spread his ideas. He was 70 when he died, possibly in France.


She says that she employed the so-called pesher technique , used by the ancient Jews to explain dreams, to uncover the real story of Jesus. According to her theory, both the New Testament and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain two levels of meaning: one for uninitiated readers, and a real meaning that is accessible to those who have the key. Thiering, who claims to have deciphered the code, paints an unorthodox picture of Jesus, drawing conclusions about his life and death. She places Jesus in the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and makes him a member of the Essene sect.

She also says that Jesus, after earning the wrath of the Jewish and Roman authorities, managed to survive crucifixion . Death on the cross, says Thiering, was usually a long and agonizing process. But in Jesus' case, Thiering says, a sympathizer gave him wine laced with poison. After drinking it, Jesus became unconscious and appeared to be dead. But in his tomb, friends used powerful purgatives to wash the poison from his body and the next day they helped Jesus from the tomb. After several years of travelling in the Middle East, he moved with other sect members to Rome. Earlier, she says, Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and they had three children before she divorced him and remarried.

Gore Vidal, an American writer, is the author of Live from Golgotha. This is a novel which even Maclean's calls "irreverent." For this story a TV crew goes back in time to cover the crucifixion. The book became a best seller after its publication in September, 1992. From Maclean`s--

Vidal, in Live from Golgothia uses the life of Jesus for no other apparent purpose than to create outrageous fiction. Golgotha is replete with raunchy language and sex scenes involving some of the main characters, but not Jesus.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it was not Jesus who died on the cross, but Judas. Says Jesus: "There was poor, fat Judas, all set to betray me and then I turn him in and he's the one who has to serve time up there on my cross--the look on his face!"

In Vidal's account, Jesus is a zealot and a revolutionary "a Zionist first, last and always." St. Paul "deliberately reworked Jesus' hardline message and substituted for it a much nicer, more mature religion with, of course, the usual vague end-of-the-world predictions."

3. A. N. Wilson is a British author and journalist and has written a book simply entitled Jesus. According to the Maclean's review--

Wilson examines the life of Christ and concludes that he may have been more of a political agitator than a religious leader. In Jesus, Wilson offers a lively and readable reinterpretation of the Gospels, based on his own reading and thinking rather than new research.

Some of his other conclusions:

4. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are the authors of The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception. They draw heavily on the work of Robert Eisenman, chairman of the Religious Studies Department at California State University. This book and Barbara Thiering's book both involve the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the late l940s. These writers suggest:

that St. Paul may have quarrelled with the early Christians ard gone on to spread his own version of Jesus' message. By speculating that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were composed after the death of Christ, the authors argue that St. Paul, the institution's first missionary, may have been the man identified in several of the scrolls as the "liar." ....the authors seem to imply that scholars with ties to the Roman Catholic church tried to delay publication of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls because they feared that their contents might undermine traditional Christian belief. Borrowing from Eisenman, the authors argue that a figure identified as the "teacher of righteousness" in one of the scrolls, the Habakkuk Commentary, was a priest named James, who may have been Jesus' brother. They speculate that the liar in the same scroll is Paul, who quarrelled with James because Paul wanted to broaden the early Christian community to include non-Jews. If James had won out, the authors suggest, "there would have been no Christianity at all, only a species of Judaism." But it was Paul who triumphed and spread his own version of Christ's teachings. That led, the authors argue, to the birth of a new religion "which came to have less and less to do with its supposed founder."1

Such visions or versions of the Jesus story are not really new. Attempts have been made through the years to strip away the miraculous elements of scripture, the miracle stories of Jesus especially. Some mainline churches have tried to soften the miraculous element, openly doubting the virgin birth and questioning the resurrection.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s there was a rash of "Jesus" books and movies, all claiming to be insightful, new, and more accurate accounts of who Jesus really was. One of these was The Passover Plot written by Hugh J. Schonfield in 1966. It became a popular movie in the 1970s.2

At the same time a Danish film maker, Jens Thorsen, was making a movie on the sex life of Jesus. Christ was apparently portrayed in sexual situations with Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist and others.3

In the face of all this material and the fact that it seems to sell, what is the Christian's response? The effects of these viewpoints is subtle and will certainly be significant if left unchallenged. These books are still offered in popular bookstores two years after their publication.

To answer and challenge these stories and "visions" historical point by historical point, fact by fact, would take a rather large book. Let's simply look at some of the larger issues rather than too many of the specifics.

The Problem of Evidence

We need to put the burden of proof back on the theorists, the writers who claim new sources, new discoveries, and new ways of interpreting. Their accounts are abundant with detail differing from the Gospel accounts--different birth place, different death place, different man on the cross even, different life style. They include specifics of political involvements and political fraud, details of how the semi-dead body was revived in the tomb. One account claims the disciples worked through the night to keep him breathing and that they tried to remove him the next morning to a safer place, but he died on the road to Damascus. They claim he was marrIed to Mary Magdalene, they had children, she divorced him and he lived until he was 70, died in France, etc. These are rather specific things.

But the question is--where is the evidence? Where are the documents? Where are the ancient accounts from the first or even the second century? It should be these ancient documents and so-called `new discoveries" themselves that are making headlines--not modern authors reconstructions and novels.

If such evidence has existed, where has it been for 2,000 years and where is it now? Where was it in the first century, if such facts were known and available? The enemies of the early church would have loved it, if any of these political, sexual or marital connections could have been even hinted at. A reluctant governor could find no political plot. If any evidence of treason against Rome had been there, he would have been quite happy to destroy him, not reluctant to do so. The eager scribes and priests could find no moral and theological scam despite their best attempts and probing questions. Their planted and lined up false witnesses couldn't even come up with the goods.

Where are the sources, from the late first, second, or even third century, that offer any factual alternate account of his death? Where are the documents that show a discrepancy between Jesus' ministry and Paul's Gospel or the message before Paul and the message after?

It's kind of convenient writing from the safety of 2,000 years to reconstruct history, fabricate fact, and so say what you want. In the Maclean's article Ian Henderson said it well,

We're in a phase where it's sort of permissible to say some quite outlandish things.4

But the question remains--where are the documents? Where is the proof? As John Allen Chalk put it in the late l960s, when a similar round of gospel sensationalism was going around, this is "such a flagrant abuse of history and reality."5

The Dead Sea Scrolls are claimed by two of the four recent books to be the key to the new understanding. Although there is controversy in deciding the who and the when of the scrolls, it seems that most of the material discovered in caves along the cliffs of the Dead Sea were written and placed there before the first century began. They contain many Old Testament books and fragments, commentaries on Old Testament hooks, and the then-current speculation and thinking about the Messianic hope of a group called the Essenes. These were spiritual people who copied the Law and lived in a tight knit community, but they were not associated with Jesus. Jesus was not an Essene. He did not live in Qumran. The scrolls do not mention Jesus. The records about Jesus do not mention the Essenes.

It is advanced speculation to suggest that the wicked priest of a Habakkuk Commentary was Jesus, James, or Paul. That particular scroll was carbon dated by a Swiss lab as being written in the first century B.C.6

There have been problems getting all the Dead Sea material published, but it has not been because the Roman Catholic church is fearful of what it might reveal about Jesus. Israel's Antiquities Authority has the most control over the scrolls. The reason given by other Dead Sea researchers for the delayed publication of the scroll material is that of a possessive old boys' club mentality on the part of those who have them in their possession. However, Biblical Archeological Review writers tell us that's about to change.7

Hershal Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archeological Review, has compiled a book called Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls. It deals with all these new claims and speculations concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to the Hamilton (Ontario)Spectator review of this book, Shanks demolishes the views of Balgent and Leigh.8 Gezu Vennes, another prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar at England's Oxford University, dismisses Thiering's book Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as "fundamentally unbelievable"9 Simply put, the Dead Sea Scrolls do not support new revisionists theories or visions of Jesus' life. The question still persists. Where's the evidence? The burden of proof remains with the theorists.

One more item before we leave this point. Outside the gospels, there just isn't a lot of early material or contemporary writing about Jesus. Bible believing Christians too would like to find those early non-biblical sources about Jesus in order to show that secular writers of the day also sald Jesus lived, and to confirm as a point of evidence the basic facts of the Gospel. We would like to show that Jesus is not a myth, but a real historical person.

Josh McDowell is a Christian evidence writer and lecturer. He works with Campus Crusade for Christ International and speaks a lot to college and university students. In his book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, he has a chapter entitled "Jesus a Man of History." Part of that chapter is a section called "Non-Biblical sources for the historicity of Jesus." He quotes Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny's letter to Trajan, and a few others. He quotes only about seven sources from the first century. Very quickly he's quoting Christian writers from the second century', and then the Jewish Talimuds (Jewish traditional history and interpretations that were written down much later). All the quotations that would really qualify for ancient and contemporary sources take less than three pages.10 The point is, the sources and quotes are few, very few, and while they do confirm the historical fact that Jesus lived and the basic facts of his life, they add no new insight into Jesus' life. They contain no new details, no Mary Magdalene stories, or tales of disciples stealing the body or hints of Jesus as a political revolutionary.

I am a little amused at a statement in an article about the book and movie, The Passover Plot This book says that all Jesus wanted to do was kick the Romans out of Israel and that he was a nice Jewish boy who planned his own crucifixion and resurrection to gain political leadership in Israel. In this story, he had a brother name Yaacov, a physician who assured him he could survive the crucifixion. His disciples burned down a local tax office, etc. The author, according to the article, is "the distinguished biblical scholar Hugh J. Schonfield." Now here's the good part. He ... "spent 40 years researching to discover who the man Jesus Christ really was."11 Forty years-- "researching." I think researching means reading, studying, and analyzing. My question is what was he reading? It certainly wasn't Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and when everything else about Jesus of any primary source or contemporary document can be put on three or four pages, what's he been doing for 40 years?

The Maclean's article, in one of those sort of eye-catching headlines placed within the text of the article says: FINDING ANSWERS ABOUT JESUS IS NEXT TO IMPOSSIBLE. And that's so true if you take away the New Testarnent, especially the original, contemporary documents of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Take away those answers and facts and you're left with speculations and fantasy.

The Problem of Abusing the Evidence That is There

The first problem is--Where is the evidence for such ideas other than in the fantasy of writers? But secondly now, to come up with such new facts, we have to abuse the evidence that is available, especially that of the Gospel records. Even if we did not count Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as inspired, we would still have to accept them as valid historical records. They were not written 300 or 2,000 years after the fact They were written by eyewitnesses, contemporaries with Jesus in a time and place when every fact they recorded and every claim Jesus made could have been checked out. Without the Gospels, Jesus would not even be a footnote in history, let alone the most fascinating feature of western history. But watch what these book writers do. They take something from the basic structure of the gospel story and find some "reason" to twist it into something else not supported by the Gospels.

Much is made of Mary Magdalene. If there is a woman within 20 miles, we can create a scandal. As biblical scholar John L. McKenzie said; "Jesus sells almost as well as sex--as long as it's not the real Jesus."12 I guess then if you can get both together, it will really sell.

What do we know of Mary Magdalene? Jesus healed her of seven demons (Luke 8:2). She was one of the women who followed from Galilee and was there for the crucifixion (Matt. 27:56). She was there at the tomb resurrection morning--one of the first to witness the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1). The speculation begins when some think she was the sinful woman who approached Jesus at Simon's feast (Luke 7), and it goes on from there. She was Jesus' lover, according to the 1970s Thorsen film. She was Jesus' wife and mother of his several children, according to Barbara Thiering.

These things are not taught in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, or any document anywhere close to the first century. These things are denied by their absence. But the key point here is, these writers who claim these facts wouldn't even know there ever was a Mary Magdalene if it were not for the gospel wrilers themselves. They are willing to take the fact of Mary Magdalene on the historical authority of the Gospels, but deny the historical fact of her friendship only and Jesus' purity or his not being married from the same source. They discredit the Gospels as not being the real story, but depend on the Gospels to have any facts at all.

One of these writers was being interviewed on a Toronto radio program, and the argument was made from the fact that Mary Magdalene was present at the tomb that, therefore, she must have been more than a friend. The claim was that either cultural norms or law wouldn't have allowed just a friend to be there--she must, therefore, have been his wife. How come we can accept the fact there was a tomb and that Mary was at the tomb from an "unreliable" source and then come to a conclusion which that same source would deny. When we do that, we obviously want the source only to support our fantasy or theory and not for the nest of what it teaches.

But it gets better if you think it through. Mary was not the only woman present at the tomb. These same sources tell us that another Mary was there (the mother of James) along with Joanna and Salome (Luke 24:10; Mark 16:1). If this previous argument were true, Jesus was not only married, he was also a very noteworthy polygamist with several wives. Somehow his contemporaries, friends, and enemies missed that. You see, you have to abuse pretty badly the historical sources we do have to come up with a new historical Jesus.

Rob Moore, a Christian from Hamilton, Ontario, wrote a letter to the editor of Maclean's in response to this article. He wrote in pant: "In the first place, these all tend to direct men's devotion to something which does not exist, for each `historical Jesus' is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new `historical Jesus,' therefore, has to be extracted from them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another. By that sort of guessing on the historical Jesus, a process is used on which no one would risk ten cents in ordinary life."13

1.  All the above reviews are taken from Maclean's: Canada's Weekly
Newsmagazine, December21, 1992; "who was Jesus?"
2.  Toronto Sunday Sun, october 31, 1976, Colin Dangood.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Maclean's, op. cit.
5.  John Allen Chalk, lecture "Why We Believe in Jesus as Saviour," Great Lakes
Christian College, January, 1968.
6.  Maclean's, December 21, 1992; "Secrets from the Caves." Frank Moore
Cross, writing for B.A.R., also deaes me Habakkuk Commentary in the second
half of me first century B.C., B.A.R., March, 1977.
7.  B.A.R. for several years itas kept readers up-dated on the progress being made
in getting the Dead Sea Scrolls material published and available to all scholars
and students.
8.  Hamilton Spectator, November 7,1992, Bernard Baskin  or see Understanding
the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hershel Shanks, Ed., Random House, New York, 1992.
9.  Maclean's, Who Was Jesus?, op. cit
10. Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Campus Crusade for Christ
International, 1972.
11. Toronto Sunday Sun, op. cit.
12. Ibid.
13. Rob Moore, personal letter, January, 1993.

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