An interview with U2 singer Bono revealed the diversity of views about Jesus. He stated, “The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world.”
His interviewer replied, “That’s a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it’s close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?”1
Many people peer back through the cloudy windows of history and glimpse an obscure picture of Jesus. It is difficult to accept the 2,000-year-old claim that Jesus is God. How could anyone believe that a small-town Jewish carpenter could have been the creator of the world? It is easier to accept that He was a moralist, a teacher, even perhaps a prophet, anything less sensational than that He is God.
If Jesus was only a moral teacher or a prophet or a great thinker, then those who insist He is God are wrong. But if He is God, then the view that He was merely a man, even an exceptional man, is wrong. Both ideas about Jesus cannot be true.
Why Is This Important?
The belief that Jesus is God is the foundational belief of Christianity. But it is this very claim that often presents a stumbling block—intellectual or spiritual. Jesus’ followers call Him Lord and God as well as Messiah and Savior.
Is this issue really that important? Isn’t it enough simply to learn from His wise sayings and admire His good life? Is it vital that we make a decision about whether or not He is God?
Jesus’ identity is the linchpin of Christianity. Why? Because Jesus claimed to be divine—He claimed to be God Himself.
This leaves us with a dilemma. How can we trust the word of someone who claims he is God—regardless of his good works or wise teaching—unless he really is God? Anyone who would call himself God without actually being God doesn’t deserve our worship, only our pity and concern; he certainly wouldn’t deserve to be called good or moral or wise. Where can we look to help us answer this question?
Some have claimed there is no evidence outside of the Bible for Jesus’ existence. They assert that someone who had actually performed miracles and gained a national following should have received substantial attention from secular history.
Because Palestine comprised a tiny section of the Roman Empire, it is unlikely that much would appear in official Roman annals about the execution of a man who did not even hold political office. But regardless, we still find well-documented references to Jesus in official sources other than the Bible.
Josephus (37–c.100 ad) provides us with the most substantive history of Jesus from outside Scripture. He was a Pharisee and a military leader who fought against the Romans in 67 ad. After his capture by the Romans, Josephus was freed by Emperor Vespasian. He wrote an extensive history of the Jewish people called Antiquities, in which he refers to the ministry of John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus Himself. In his written history, Josephus calls Christ “a wise man” and “a doer of surprising works.” He specifically states that Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross.2
In correspondence from the Roman senator Pliny the Younger (61–c.113 ad) to Emperor Trajan, Pliny inquires if his handling of the Christians is appropriate. The senator implemented a policy that attempted to get Christians to renounce Christ and swear allegiance to the emperor and the pagan gods. Pliny noted that they worshiped “Christ as a god” and mentions that Christians observed the Lord’s Supper.3
When the Roman historian Tacitus (c.56–117 ad) wrote about the fire of 64 ad, he noted that Nero falsely blamed the Christians. Tacitus was by no means sympathetic to Christians and wrote that they were “hated for their abominable crimes.” In his account, written about 115–117 ad, Tacitus cites “Christ” as the founder of a subversive religion, and mentions that He was executed by Pontius Pilate during Tiberius’ reign.4
Another reference made by the lawyer Suetonius (c.69–122 ad) mentions “Chrestus,” which seems to be derived from the term Chrestiani for Jesus’ followers. Apparently this Chrestus was the reason for Jewish insubordination in Rome, which caused Emperor Claudius to expel all the Jews from Rome. Luke writes in Acts 18:2 how Aquila and Priscilla “left Italy when Claudius Caesar deported all Jews from Rome.”5 Suetonius penned his account around 120 ad.
None of these chroniclers were followers of Christ, as evidenced by their disparaging references to Christians in general. Yet these citations all refer to Jesus using the title of Christ, which means “anointed one.” Even nonbelieving historians acknowledged that Jesus existed and that His followers esteemed Him as the Christ.
The Best Source
The key to finding convincing evidence is finding a credible source. Without a reliable source, the inquirer is left only with speculation, opinion, and unnecessary conclusions.
C. S. Lewis illustrates the impact of credibility in his classic children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the story, young Lucy Pevensie has discovered the magical land of Narnia. Her brother Edmund has been there as well, but for selfish reasons refuses to admit its existence. Their older siblings, Peter and Susan, believe Edmund over Lucy. Her story sounds too fantastic to be true.
Lucy’s continued insistence that Narnia is real drives the older children to Professor Digory Kirke, owner of the house where the children are staying for the summer. Hearing their dilemma, the professor asks: “Does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?” Peter and Susan quickly realize that Lucy is unfailingly honest but not Edmund. Lucy had a history of, and reputation for, honesty. Peter and Susan, therefore, change their stance on whom to believe. Because Lucy has proven trustworthy, it is likely that she is telling the truth now too. A proven record of honesty and accuracy in some areas suggests trustworthiness in other areas.
The source containing the most evidence about Jesus’ identity is a book that can be trusted—the Bible. That’s where the belief that Jesus is God finds its fullest and best support. Archaeological research has shown the Bible to be trustworthy in historical and geographical matters. Scripture has been scrutinized by scholars for nearly 2,000 years and consistently found factually reliable.
Engraved stones or cylinders from ancient civilizations verify biblical accounts. For example, the Taylor Prism confirms the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem that the Bible describes in 2 Kings 18–19, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36–37. The discovery of the Tel Dan Stele confirms the existence of Israel’s King David. The Cyrus Cylinder records Cyrus of Persia’s decree that allowed Babylonian captives to return to their homes and resume their religious practices. The Moabite Stone substantiates the events of 2 Kings 3. The stone not only chronicles the rebellion led by Mesha king of Moab but even mentions the name Yahweh.6
This is significant for our question. As with Peter and Lucy Pevensie, we must take into account the Bible’s track record for accuracy and reliability. Because we know the Bible is accurate in areas we can verify (historical accounts), to disregard it in other areas (the miracles and identity of Jesus, for instance) is a serious matter.
It makes sense then to investigate the Bible’s claims about the identity of its central figure and to follow that evidence to its conclusion. If the Bible can be trusted, and if its message has been preserved across the centuries, then it is a reliable source. Let’s look at what the Bible says about the idea that Jesus is God.
2 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 1:61.
3 Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2002), 50–51.
4 Bock, 48–49.
5 Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 83–84.
6 Dennis Moles, Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Truth of The Bible. Discovery Series, 2012.