The Essential Jesus: His Life & Teaching

Who is the Real Jesus?

Teaching t10166


Tonight we begin a series on “the essential Jesus.” We will skip over his birth, early years and most of his passion and focus on the approximately three-year period (late 20’s to early 30’s AD) of his public ministry when he taught, performed miracles, called and trained disciples, made unique claims for himself, and experienced escalating conflict with Israel’s religious leaders because of those claims.

But before we start, I need to clarify which Jesus we’re going to study. I want to be absolutely clear on my answer to this question. I regard the portrait of Jesus from the four (canonical) gospels of the New Testament to be the real one, and I will teach every teaching in this series from this assumption. Specifically, this Jesus claims to be the unique and sole Savior and Messiah for all humanity who was predicted by the Old Testament prophets.

Why not the Jesus of The DiVinci Code?

But why the Jesus of the canonical gospels? Why not the Jesus advanced by Dan Brown in his runaway best-seller, The DaVinci Code? Although Brown’s novel is fictional, this theory is presented as a well-established fact which debunks the “traditional” view. It is rooted in the views of Elaine Pagels (author of The Gnostic Gospels), and includes the following assertions:

Jesus never claimed to be the divine Son of God. The church invented this version of Jesus 3 centuries later. The real Jesus claimed only to be an enlightened mortal who espoused a Gnostic (New Age) spirituality that celebrated enlightenment through sexual intercourse.

Jesus was romantically involved with Mary Magdalene. He later married her, sired a daughter by her, and intended for her to lead the church after his departure. The church later covered this up and invented a “bachelor” Jesus to promote its male chauvinism views.

The New Testament was a thoroughly human product--specifically the invention of the “winners” (those who assumed power in the 4th century). They rejected 70+ other “gospels,” many of which gave a more accurate portrait of Jesus (including the Gospel of Thomas), and selected the 4 that agreed with their views.

Since then, the New Testament has further evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions--to such an extent that an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus may be lost forever.1

Judging my conversations with many since its publication, Americans are gobbling up Brown’s view. There is a mounting cynicism about the canonical Jesus and general agnosticism about having reliable knowledge about him. American culture prides itself in being cynical (“nobody’s fool”)--but it is gullible about cynical theories (especially theories that spiritually justify sexual immorality)! But despite what The DaVinci Code says, the actual evidence overwhelmingly points to the Jesus of the canonical gospels as the correct portrait.

Why the Jesus of the canonical gospels?

There is an enormous amount of evidence supporting the canonical Jesus--I am only going to give a brief survey of the highlights of this evidence. Recommend Moreland, Jesus Under Fire for further study.

First, the canonical gospels are the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life. Virtually all scholars agree that they are first-century documents—while all of the above portraits are mid-second-century (“Thomas”) or later. The canonical gospels were written between the mid-50’s (Mark) and 90 AD (John). This is important, because the closer in time a historical document is to the events it reports, the more reliable it is likely to be. And because eyewitness opponents were still alive when these documents were written, they could have refuted this testimony. Yet there is no record of this!

Second, the canonical gospels are based on eyewitness accounts. Eye-witness testimony is the most reliable testimony possible for historical accounts. Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples, as was John. Mark was a follower of Jesus, and his account is mainly Peter’s eye-witness description of Jesus. Luke states expressly that his account is a compilation of eye-witness testimony. By contrast, the “Gospel of Thomas” is a pseudonymous work because its author wrote around 150 AD—long after the death of Jesus’ generation. The narrative bears the “feel” of eyewitness testimony. Historical fiction was not invented until over 1800 years later. C. S. Lewis, a literary critic, read the gospels as a non-Christian and knew they were history, not myth or legend. The authors are often very uncomplimentary about their own roles (PETER’S DENIAL), unlike “sanitized” history. They were persecuted horribly (most of them were killed) for their accounts—so there is no reason to suspect their honesty.

Third, the canonical gospels reliably report other known historical events. Unlike the “Gospel of Thomas” (which contains no historical narrative) or other apocryphal gospels (which are obviously mythical), the canonical gospels make themselves vulnerable to falsification by reporting hundreds of people and events in space and time. They have survived 20 centuries of unprecedented scholarly attack and are now considered to be among the most reliable first-century historical documents ever written. Sir William Ramsay, who began his excavations to prove Luke’s fraudulence, concluded after years of study that "Luke's history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness . . ."2 and "Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest historians."3 Ramsay’s response was not simply academic; he committed his life to follow Jesus and defend the New Testament he formerly tried to destroy.

Fourth, the preservation of the canonical gospels (contra their corruption by copyist errors or intentional changes) is an established fact. The closer to the originals the copies are, and the more copies we have, the more certain we can be what the originals said. We have only a few copies of these pseudo-gospels, and most of these copies are hundreds of years after the originals. By contrast, we have over 5000 copies of the canonical gospels—dating back to within 250 years of the originals (and fragments going back to the early second century). The New Testament is by far the best attested ancient document in the world!

Fifth, the fact that the canonical gospels’ authors “have an agenda” does not impeach the accuracy of their accounts. Commenting earlier this year on “The Passion,” a local minister said: “The story of Jesus is historical, but the way it is captured in the (canonical) Gospels, which is basically where Gibson gets his stuff, is religious history, not pure history, and there is a difference. Religious history is there to try to evangelize . . . to try to teach a particular faith belief. It's not to tell you what happened.”4 This position—so popular today—is wrong-headed. “Simply because a writer is passionately committed to promoting a particular cause does not at all mean he or she will falsify the facts. Often, such a person will work all the harder to tell the story straight . . . After all, often the truthfulness of something is (often) what produced the personal commitment in the first place.”5 Do we reject Jewish historians’ accounts of the Holocaust because they have an agenda (i.e., to prevent it from happening again)? Accounts claiming to be historical should be evaluated along the above four lines—and they attest to canonical gospels’ reliability. (Ironically, it is the other portraits of Jesus that are guilty of letting their agendas distort their accounts!)

In summary, we don’t have to guess which portrait is the real Jesus and which are the imposters. Even non-Christian scholars, such as Jewish scholars Geza Vermes and David Flusser, declare that (because of the canonical gospels) “. . . we know more about Jesus than about almost any other first-century Jew.”6 God went out of his way to preserve this record, because he wants us to be able to know about his Son . . .

What is the canonical Jesus like?

That’s what the rest of this series will seek to answer. What a fascinating Person the canonical Jesus is! If you study the real Jesus, you will discover a person who breaks every preconceived mold. In him, characteristics that are normally mutually exclusive come together in a way that defies human experience. For example:

His moral demands were disturbingly high (Matt. 5)—yet his mercy was shockingly wide (Jn. 8:11; Levi). This is what infuriated the religious leaders. Jesus convicted them as sinners, and he welcomed “sinners” as forgivable and redeemable.

He claimed to be from another world (Jn. 13:1,3)—yet he was not at all “other-worldly.” He is intensely familiar with and involved in the issues of this life. This is one reason why the common people loved him so much.

He was a “larger than life” public figure who drew massive crowds—yet he was not remote and detached, but rather intensely interested in individuals of all kinds (woman at well; Zaccheus).

He is utterly realistic about human depravity (Jn. 2)—yet without a trace of cynicism because he trusted in God’s redemptive power (Jn 1: “You are . . . but you shall be”). Contra America’s pendulum swing from naïve optimistic humanism to Simpson’s/Seinfeld cynicism.

His was single-mindedly focused on his goals (Lk. 9)—yet he never ran over people to accomplish them. He was unfailingly sensitive, even to those “in the way”. This is because his goals came from a God who is personal and redemptive.

His claims about himself were so outlandish that they sound psychotic (Jn. 5,8,10; Mk. 2; Matt 24:14,31)—yet both his demeanor (humility, stability, and unflappable reaction to adversity) and his teachings are the personification of sanity and mental health (paraphrase J. T. FISHER QUOTE).

In short, Jesus is a person so unique that no one could have invented him! But the canonical authors wrote their accounts not just because Jesus was a historical oddity, but because knowing him transformed their lives. And they wrote their accounts not just so his readers could learn about him and admire him nostalgically from a distance (“I wish had been there!”)—but so that they (and we) could also know him personally and be transformed by him.

That why John ends his gospel by saying Jn. 20:31 (read). His goal is not just to inform his readers about his dead hero, but that they would personally entrust themselves to Jesus as their Messiah and experience his spiritual life.

Why not commit to this series and begin reading the gospels on your own? And as you do this, why not call out to Jesus and tell him you want to meet him if he’s real?


1 Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pp. 230-250.

2Sir William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953), p. 222.

3Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962), p. 81.

4 Dennis M. Mahoney, “’Passion’ Fires Up Faithful,” The Columbus Dispatch, February 20, 2004, p. E1.

5 Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 36,37.

6 James H. Charlesworth,ed., Jesus’ Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus within Early Judaism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), p. 81. “Almost” in the quote refers to the apostle Paul as the first-century Jew about whom we know even more than Jesus.

Copyright 2005 Gary DeLashmutt