Discovering Jesus: “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?”
“’But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’” –Matthew 16:15.
Over the past few years, I have arrived upon forks in the road – so to speak – in terms of what I believe about Jesus Christ. I have read books, listened to sermons, taken classes about Christianity at Middlebury College, and have conducted research on my own. I hoped to share parts of this journey with you…
In my study of Christianity, I discovered that this set of beliefs has played a pivotal role in world history over the past two thousand years. Despite persecution, the early Church flourished, as seeds of faith were transported to nations around the world and live on today. Christianity has influenced governments, revolutions, and movements like Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom in the United States and Nelson Mandela’s hope of justice for South Africa. Christianity has inspired writers like C.S. Lewis, artists like Bernini, and masterpieces like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Certainly, and in many other ways, Christianity has left its mark on history. Moreover, the question that begs to be asked is: “Are the claims of Christianity true? And, why does it matter?”
Finding answers to these questions requires studying the life of Jesus, a first century Jew and the catalyst of Christianity. The claims of Christianity center on claims about this man, and the Bible provides readers with a picture of what Jesus said about himself and his identity. In the 16th chapter of the Book of Matthew, Jesus conversed with his disciples: “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven”’ (Matthew 16:13-17).
Indeed, Jesus said he was God, born as a man, in myriad parts of The Gospels in the Bible: the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus said that he existed before Abraham: “‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born I am’” (John 8:58). Jesus also taught that he had the power to forgive sins and grant people eternal life: “‘I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand’” (John 10:27-28).
Some of Jesus’ opponents at the time reacted in anger to his words, attempting to stone Jesus, and said, “‘We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God’” (John 10:33). Jesus also called himself “Lord of the Sabbath” in the Book of Mark Chapter 2 in relation to the 10 Commandments God gave Moses for the people of Israel in the Old Testament. In addition, Jesus called himself “Son of Man” continually. On trial, authorities questioned Jesus about his identity: “Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?’
‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven”’ (Mark 14:61-62).
This title “Son of Man” connected to a prophecy from the Old Testament prophet Daniel, who recorded an experience he had with God: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
In addition, Jesus did not object, when people called him God or worshipped him as divine. Jesus’ claims about his identity affect the significance of Christianity and the rationality of its viewpoint.
In my process of learning more about the identity of Jesus, I found the writing of several authors significantly relevant. C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote a series of well-known books, including The Weight of Glory, The Four Loves, The Problem of Pain, and Mere Christianity. This last book particularly expounds on Jesus’ claims about himself.
From Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:
“There suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear… God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kind of description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as silliness and conceit unrivaled by any other character in history.
Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impressions of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were really a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feel and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic or a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” (end quote)
The writing of C.S. Lewis, accompanied with the archeological evidence supporting the historicity of the Bible, creates a sort of fork in the road in terms of understanding Christianity. Archeologists continue to discover places and artifacts that verify Bible history occurred; findings include cities mentioned in the Bible, according to description, such as Jericho, Taanach, Hebron, Megiddo, Bethshean, Babylon, Jerusalem, and numerous others. Archeologists have uncovered significant discoveries from old Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, including The Rosetta Stone, The Ras Shamra Tablets, The Obelisk of On, The Moabite Stone, The Tyler Prism, and many, many more. In 1947, a young shepherd unearthed the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judean Desert, east of Jerusalem. In the site called Qumran, eleven caves were found with ancient religious writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek dating from the third century BC to the first century before 70 AD. Biblical scrolls make up 230 of the manuscripts – among which include complete or partial texts of every Old Testament book with the exception of the Book of Esther. These scrolls represent the most ancient copies of biblical work discovered to date and important evidence regarding the preservation of Biblical texts’ purity over time.
These places and artifacts have unique histories worthy of research with books written on archeological findings. Although this evidence does not prove the claims of Christianity, it indicates that the history recorded in the Bible did indeed take place.
In terms of the validity of Jesus’ life, numerous eyewitnesses penned accounts of their experiences with Jesus. But are these manuscripts reliable? The New Testament passes three essential tests for the historical reliability of documents: the bibliographical test, the internal evidence test, and the external evidence test.
Indeed, much greater source material has been found for Biblical texts than any other ancient text in history, proving the original eyewitness stories have been preserved throughout time to this day. Modern day evidence shows that New Testament authors wrote their book between the timespan of 40 AD and 90 AD. More than 5,600 known copies of the Greek New Testament exist from the past 2,000 years. Professor Blomberg, a New Testament scholar from Denver Seminary, has commented that New Testament texts “have been preserved in far greater number and with much more care than have any other ancient documents… [and] 97-99% of the New Testament can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt.” In comparison, 49 known copies of Aristotle’s poetics exist – written around 343 BC with the earliest known copy from 1,400 years later in 1,100 AD. The Iliad, with greater manuscript authority, has only 643 known copies.
In terms of internal evidence, the authors of the the New Testament documents give testimony to events that occurred within centuries of their writing – a remarkably close timespan. Many other independent eyewitnesses also wrote testimony about the life of Jesus. The writers of the New Testament include vulnerable but meaningful parts of stories with Jesus, like Peter’s denial of Christ and Jesus’ final cry in crucifixion, that one making up a testimony about Jesus would likely not write.
For external evidence, manuscripts of Greek, Jewish, and Roman origin document the historical existence of people worshipping Jesus as God; the Roman’s crucification of Jesus; belief in the resurrection and empty tomb; and Jesus’ brother James. Indeed, further textual evidence also confirms the historicity of biblical events.
Learning about the decisions of Jesus’ first disciples, in the face of persecution, contributes to this evidence. After choosing to travel with Jesus during his life on earth, the disciples watched Jesus suffer crucifixion. According to the gospels, they interacted with him after his resurrection and watched him ascend into heaven before waiting forty days for the Holy Spirit to come at Pentecost. From the disciples’ experiences on that day and with Jesus during his life, each disciple found their faith worth suffering for.
Indeed, they must have been convinced of the truth of Jesus’ claims in order to make life-risking choices. Ten of Jesus’ first disciples died as martyrs: Matthew was speared to death; James and Thomas died by the sword. Andrew was crucified as well as Philip, Simon, Bartholomew, and the other James; Peter was crucified upside down. Thaddeus died by arrow. John was exiled and died of old age. Each man had a decision to proclaim Jesus as Lord and face death or turn away and avoid persecution. Yet, what the disciples had seen, experienced, and believed, they counted worthy of their lives. Their decisions confirmed their faith in Jesus as God.
Since that era, numerous other people have reached forks in the road. Many have taken unimaginable risks and given up much for the sake of others based on their belief in Jesus. As a result, if a person believes that the events in the Bible did take place, then a natural step is to decide what they believe about the identity of Jesus. Indeed, as his claims are so bold they deserve careful research and personal decision.
1. “Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680).” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web.
2. Wright, N. T. “Stories of the Kingdom (3): Judgment and Vindication.” Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996. N. pag. Print.
3. Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.
4. Adams, J. McKee, Ph.D. Ancient Records and the Bible. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1946. Print.
5. “Discovery and Publication.” The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. Israel Antiquities Authority, n.d. Web.
6. “Introduction.” The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Library. Israel Antiquities Authority, n.d. Web.
7. “Scrolls Content.” The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Library. Israel Antiquities Authority, n.d. Web.
8. McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009. Print.
9. McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009. Print.