Who was Jesus, and did He really exist? As Christmas festivities engulf American society these twin questions generally spring to mind. This year is no different, as the National Geographic magazine once again wanders into the area of spirituality with this month’s cover article The Real Jesus . A quick look at this issue makes you wonder if this is an evangelistic bid, rather than the traditional offering about geography and subjects relating to the physical world we live in.
The questions about Jesus certainly endure as relevant and legitimate. As NatGeo author and former archeologist Kristin Romey points out, some two billion people alive today have staked some degree of belief in Jesus as simultaneously historical and personally influential. So, we ask: Was Jesus indeed the very Son of the all-powerful God of the Bible, and the Savior of all humanity? Or was He actually a first-century revolutionary advocate of local regime change, today the mashup of fact and fiction?
National Geographic maps out some physical evidence and scholarly opinion—pro and con—about the existence and claims of Jesus. Today we have astonishingly well-preserved ancient records—notably in the form of the four gospels and the New Testament book of Acts—as well as references about Jesus from Roman historians like Tacitus. But a never-ending savage assault on the divine origin, mission and purpose of Jesus has been underway for centuries. The assault never succeeds, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.
National Geographic cites the biased work of the so-called Jesus Seminar, a group (essentially disbanded since 2006) of revisionist scholars who once tried to deconstruct the ancient biblical accounts, ladling out their human opinion of what they thought might have happened in the gospels and what they labeled as far-fetched. NatGeo further cites what they call “a bombshell of a book,” the 1990 Historical Jesus , where one of the former Jesus Seminar participants serves up a warmed-over claim that Jesus was simply a first-century sarcastic wandering sage.
This revisionist nonsense about Jesus has appeared and reappeared off and on for centuries. Here’s an example: In the 17th century, the German Tubingen School inflamed Christian Europe with the then-highly controversial 1846 publication of Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet ( The Life of Jesus ). The author, David Friedrich Strauss, was a disciple of both biblical vivisectionist F.C. Baur and philosopher George Hegel, liberal theologians who sought to comingle biblical tenets with what they deemed as scientific principles. Echoing the later assertions of the future Jesus Seminar, the hotly debated 17th century Life of Jesus tried to dismiss the miracle narratives of the gospel, essentially claiming that the supernatural elements—miracles and works that only a powerful God could do—were simply myth or fiction. These claims didn’t ring true then, just as they fail to ring true now.
Peeling back tradition
Archeology can and does serve an excellent purpose in both confirming and illuminating the magnificent arc of the biblical account. As NatGeo author Romey correctly points out, from archeology’s point of view, “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” In other words, just because something hasn’t been found yet (or may never be found) to confirm a given textual reference, that in itself is not “proof” that the textual narrative is less than accurate.
Back to the National Geographic cover story, Romey accurately cites an important point from one scholar: “Thanks to archaeology, there’s been a big change in thinking—from Jesus the cosmopolitan Hellenist to Jesus the observant Jew.” The fact that Jesus was born into the biblical tribe of Judah and lived and died as a practicing Jew may be a shock to some traditionalists. But that’s exactly what happened. Jesus’ practices of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, upholding the law of God (Matthew 5:17-20 Matthew 5:17-20 17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
18 For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say to you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
American King James Version×) and putting God first—“You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30 Mark 12:30And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength: this is the first commandment.
American King James Version×, emphasis added), all stood out in stark contrast to the times, both then and now.
The real Jesus didn’t do things by accident. Consider this important point: a major part of Jesus’ early ministry was spent in northern Galilee near critical trade routes. As National Geographic acknowledges, archeology may have found the remains of the very synagogue where Jesus preached in Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The gospels are careful to record that Jesus performed an astonishing degree of “mighty works”—supernatural acts inexplicable by human means—in that region where numerous trade routes existed (Matthew 11:20-24 Matthew 11:20-24 20 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:
21 Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I say to you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
23 And you, Capernaum, which are exalted to heaven, shall be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in you, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
24 But I say to you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.
American King James Version×). Think about how stories and summaries of these “mighty works” might have been carried by commercial traders to all corners of the Roman empire, thus laying the foundation for the later spreading of the gospel.
The real Jesus in your life
So what about you? What can be understood and embraced about the real Jesus? With the above in mind, let’s consider how Paul illuminated this proof of the real Jesus to a most improbable group: ancient Greek philosophers. On one of his extensive journeys, the apostle Paul made his way down the Grecian peninsula, walking some 70 miles from northern Thessalonica to Athens in the south. A learned Jew himself, Paul immediately “reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks” (Acts 17:17 Acts 17:17Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
American King James Version×, New International Version) about Jesus and the truth of the Gospel.
But he expanded his outreach in this legendary epicenter of human philosophical thought. He took the gospel to “the marketplace,” an area where public speaking and discourse on various topics was permitted and encouraged. Paul immediately attracted major attention, “because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18 Acts 17:18Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seems to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached to them Jesus, and the resurrection.
American King James Version×).
Paul sought to satisfy the Greeks with proof and testimony about the real Jesus!
So, Paul set out on a unique course. Given the local laws about religion, Paul had to step carefully. He was invited to address a special group of philosophers and local officials on Mars Hill (the Areopagus). The parallels with today are amazing. Paul piqued their interest with a reference to a nearby monument inscribed “To the Unknown God.” Paul thus declared: “The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23 Acts 17:23For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore you ignorantly worship, him declare I to you.
American King James Version×).
Tapping into their professed quest for truth, Paul skillfully outlined the mighty attributes of God, the very Father of Jesus, even quoting their own poets to show the widespread recognition of these important truths. He concluded with the fact that this mighty God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has ordained” (Acts 17:31 Acts 17:31Because he has appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained; whereof he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.
American King James Version×). This, of course, is a direct reference to Jesus.
Paul proved the historical and personal validity of Jesus before possibly the most difficult of all audiences. He authoritatively showed them the real Jesus.
What about you? As National Geographic confirms, there still exists powerful interest in Jesus for a reason. Do you want to fully and confidently know the real Jesus? I invite you to request (or instantly download) our Bible study guide, Jesus Christ: The Real Story . This free 109-page book thoroughly explains critical facts about Jesus, His life, His message, and His meaning for you today. Don’t wait, find the real Jesus now!