Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Real Jesus by Kristin Romey

National Geographic just published an article entitled “The Real Jesus” by Kristin Romey (National Geographic, December 2017, 40-68). Here are some random thoughts.

First, I was pleased to see that the author quotes even highly skeptical scholars who acknowledge Jesus’ existence. For example, Romey quotes Duke University’s Eric Myers (who in my view qualifies as a somewhat radical skeptic), as saying, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus” (42).

Second, not only does the article debunk those who deny Jesus’ existence, the article demonstrates that critics were wrong about Jesus being a “cosmopolitan Hellenist” (or Cynic sage) rather than an “observant Jew.” Critics were wrong in their skepticism about the existence of synagogues in first century Galilee. Critics were also wrong in their “once fashionable notion that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel’s religious center” (65). To the contrary, Romey provides numerous examples of archaeological evidence that tends to support the general reliability of the Gospels (though I’m not sure that was her intent).

Third, Romey mentions that not all scholars are convinced that Jesus was born in Bethlehem since the story is only told in Matthew and Luke, and those stories are different—e.g. “the traditional manger and shepherds in Luke; the wise men, massacre of children, and flight to Egypt in Matthew” (46). That is true, but it is a poor reason to reject the birth stories. The two accounts are not mutually exclusive. No biographer could possibly record every detail of a person’s life (and even if they could, no one would want to read it!). Biographers have to be selective. 

The Gospel writers select their material to emphasize the points they want to make (See John 20:30-31). The fact that one account leaves something out does not mean it didn’t happen. Besides, when two independent accounts differ in some respects, that only makes their agreements more significant—and both sources independently (assuming the “Two-source” synoptic theory) agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. There are no sources—none!—that say Jesus was born in Nazareth, which is what some critics assert.

Romey goes on to point out that “Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the Messiah” (46). Her statement is true—that is what some scholars propose. So if these scholars are correct, the writers of Matthew and Luke (or earlier Christians) made up the story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem in order to falsely say that Jesus had fulfilled this messianic prophecy. In that case, it would appear that even in the face of persecution these early Christians continued to believe and teach that Jesus was the Messiah even though they knew they had fabricated the Bethlehem story! I find this option unlikely, to say the least.

Another option is that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem where the prophet Micah says the Messiah would be born (there were, after all, babies born in Bethlehem!)—and this is one of several reasons early Christians thought Jesus was the Messiah. I think the second option better helps to explain the very early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah.

Finally, the conclusion of the article is very disappointing:

At this moment I realize that to sincere believers, the scholar’s quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence. That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions, irreconcilable facts. But for true believers, their faith in the life, death, and Resurrection of the Son of God will be evidence enough (68).

The author hits the nail on the head when she implies that the quest for the historical Jesus has been a quest for a non-supernatural Jesus. That has often been the guiding presupposition of the entire quest! Regardless of what the evidence might be, nothing can be allowed to overturn what has been the assumption of predominantly western, white, male, academic elites regarding a non-supernatural Jesus!

Most people in the world, however, do not buy into this elitist assumption, and that fact is that there is much evidence in support of the essential reliability of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus. See, for example, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus edited by Darrell Bock and Robert Web (931 pages); The Historical Reliability of the New Testament by Craig Blomberg and Robert Stewart (816 pages); The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright ( 817 pages) or The Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona (718 pages). Skeptics may counter that books like these don’t prove every detail of the Gospels to be true, but these books certainly show that, contrary to Romey, true Christianity is not just a blind leap of faith.


If you want a more thorough overview of the topic of Jesus and archaeology, I would suggest Jesus and his World; The Archaeological Evidence by Craig Evans.

No comments: