Was Jesus a historical figure? Or was he simply a creation of the Church? If he did exist, did he claim to be God, or was he just a radical social reformer? And is he alive and at work in people’s hearts today? These are just some of the questions people bring to the enigma of Jesus of Nazareth.
And really, these are some of the most important questions we could ever ask. Who Jesus really is, if he is at all, determines everything about how we see the world and how we live. In his latest book, Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in our World, journalist Greg Sheridan surveys the academic terrain and has some good news for believers and unbelievers alike.
C.S. Lewis famously proposed his ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ dilemma in Mere Christianity (1952). Either, Lewis said, Jesus was who he said he was (i.e. God), or he was a madman or the devil himself. The point of this dilemma was to present people with the only real options available and persuade them to make a choice. However, in his book The Case for Jesus (2016), biblical scholar Brant Pitre says that there is actually a fourth option Lewis missed: that Jesus was a legend; that all of the stories we have about him, especially the miraculous stories or the ones that suggested his divinity, were later fabrications on the part of the Church.
In his book, Sheridan comes to the conclusion that this thesis, part of the ‘modernist project of the last couple of centuries’, is one that has pretty much crumbled entirely. Through archeological discoveries and the development of our historiography, the suggestion that the New Testament was written a long time after the death of Jesus becomes ludicrous. In Egypt, for example, a fragment of John’s Gospel was found dating all the way back to the end of the first century at least. And the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 blew the case wide open, providing immense historical evidence for the broad parameters of the New Testament, depicting Jewish societies that corresponded with those depicted in the Bible.
One of the most important things to recognise, however, is the extent to which the Gospels themselves are actually the work of eye-witnesses. Sheridan writes:
'Once you accept that the New Testament is the work of eye-witnesses, and reporters who spoke to eye-witnesses, then Jesus becomes the most richly documented figure of the ancient world.’
In fact, about the people who believe Jesus never even existed, Sheridan remarks that this ‘is surely the most eccentric conclusion of the lot. Something like denouncing drunkenness while claiming that the existence of alcohol is a myth.’
Part of the problem is that people are not inclined to believe in the miraculous. Again, to quote Lewis from his book Miracles (1960), people tend to rule out the possibility of miracles before studying the historical evidence, making their problem not with the evidence but with their philosophy.
Either way, the apostle Paul himself provides us with tremendous historical testimony. Some of his earliest epistles are dated within a decade of Jesus’ death, maybe two. His epistles, Sheridan writes, ‘demonstrate incontrovertibly that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead and is the Son of God. They do this irresistibly as history.’
'Even if you think what Paul was writing was all wrong, its value to history as testimony is plain.’
One of the great strengths of Sheridan’s book is that he doesn’t overstate things where he shouldn’t. He’s a careful thinker and wants to push back against our modern, overly scientific conception of what “proof” should entail. From the book:
'Christians must also be clear and honest about the limits of the historical evidence. History certainly does not prove that Jesus was God and that he rose from the dead. It is similar to the question of whether to believe in God at all. It is reasonable to believe in God and it is reasonable not to believe in God … Most of the things we actually believe in life are reasonable but not proven.'
The question Sheridan is trying to explore is what fits best with all the facts. The decision to believe in the resurrection of Christ from the dead is a matter of faith and judgment, but one of the critical points of his argument – given his largely secular audience – is that such belief does not go against the facts and nor does it defy reason. It might actually fit best with everything we know historically.
Sheridan’s book is a lively read. Part of his talent is that he is able to communicate a broad array of complex ideas with clarity and readability. His style and wit (especially when he is deriding the 2019 film Tolkien) might make this one of the most accessible and energetic introductions to the historicity of the New Testament you could choose. He brings to the fore the humanness of the Bible and its writers in a way that makes you want to get to know them again as if they are old friends. Sometimes our reverence for Scripture makes us forget that it was written by humans. Sheridan doesn’t let us forget that. The humanity of it all is part of the excitement, part of the realness of it.
Another strength of the book is that he doesn’t stay confined to history, either. He makes something of a turn in the second half, bringing our attention to modern-day movements and people to see where Jesus is at work, where new life is emerging.
Some of these people are high-profile public figures, like Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Archbishop Peter A Comensoli. Some are lesser known but still influential people, filmmakers and school-builders and activists. As with the figures in the Bible, he brings out the complexity of these people, their light and shadows – their humanity.
Hearing these people’s stories, you can only really feel hope. Christianity in the West is not the best shape right now, but Sheridan doesn’t let cynicism govern his attitude about the future of the Church and the Gospel. He wants to bring us hope about where the Gospel is alive and working, and inspire us to be creative and proactive in the way in which we engage an unsympathetic culture.
'Christianity has probably never been weaker institutionally in the West than it is now, certainly not for hundreds of years. Yet these are typically the moments when Christianity does the most surprising things, the most extraordinary things.'
So, if you're feeling a little wearied by everything going on in the world right now, or feeling the need to reconnect with that original fire of faith, this book is one that I highly recommend. It is thoughtful, realistic, energetic and hopeful, above all else. And if we're being honest, we could all use a little hope right now.