Jesus Legend or Lord?

by Paul L. Maier

History records the lives of many greats, but only One claimed divinity,

performed miracles and rose from the dead.

Jesus was a historical figure. The temporal, geographical, historical and archaeological findings all underscore that fact. We have a reliable record of His birth, ministry, suffering and death.

But many other greats have been born, had a famous life, suffered and died. What sets Jesus apart? The supernatural dimension, of course. Here was the first, and since then, the last, human being seriously to claim divinity for Himself, perform miracles and rise from the dead, according to the Gospels.

But what about such miracles? Did they really happen? The Greek of the New Testament uses various terms for these astonishing deeds: terata (wonders), dynamis (power), erga (works), and especially semeia (signs).

Jesus' miracles fell into four categories. More than half of them were therapeutic healings of vast numbers of the diseased or handicapped. The Gospels give a score of specific examples, and then let these represent the rest.

Another form of these "signs" was exorcism and the psychological healing of those possessed. Four instances of raising the dead comprise the third category, and the physical or "nature" miracles the fourth. Examples of the last would be the occasions when Jesus stilled a storm on the Sea of Galilee, walked on its waters, or served a desert lunch to 5, 000 hungry hearers from only five loaves and two fish.

Spectacular and faith-compelling though the miracles may seem, people are entitled to ask, "But did they really happen?"

Geography, history, and archaeology are unable to prove the miraculous to everyone's satisfaction, of course. David Hume's Essay on Miracles is usually quoted by skeptics at this point, in which the Scottish philosopher rules out the miraculous on the basis of natural law that cannot be violated, a view shared in one way or another by all who deny the possibility of miracles. Hume's skepticism, however, may not be entirely valid even in terms of the natural sciences, and it overlooks the quintessential issue, namely: the only way that the super-natural dimension could ever demonstrate itself in the natural realm would be, in fact, by intrusion into natural law.

Jesus' miracles always served a higher purpose: they were never performed in order to astound or mystify or entertain, but to help. Jesus was no magician. Even a magician like the Simon Magus of Acts 8 recognized a higher form of "magic" here. Current attempts to compare Jesus with other presumed wonder-working Galileans of His day, Honi the Circle-Drawer or Hanina ben Dosa, collapse on the overwhelmingly superior quality and quantity of documentation on Jesus.

Traces of the Miraculous

For believers, the Gospel reports of miracles are proof enough.

But for non-Christians and any whom we wish to reach with the Good News of what happened 2, 000 years ago, additional confirmation may prove helpful.

Is there any non-Biblical evidence supporting New Testament claims for the miraculous, including the greatest miracle of all: triumph over death in a resurrection? Indeed there is, and, at times, more than mere traces of evidence. What might be called "fallout" from the explosively miraculous can be detected also in purely secular sources. The probable arrest notice for Jesus is a case in point.

John's Gospel tell us: "Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him" (11:57). We may have some idea of how the arrest notice read. A rabbinical tradition recorded in the Talmud spells out the indictment against Yeshu Hannozri (Hebrew for "Jesus the Nazarene"). Combined with the New Testament evidence, the notice can be reconstructed as follows:


He shall be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. Anyone who knows where he is, let him declare it to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

The reference to stoning rather than crucifixion is extremely credible. Jesus had not yet been arrested, and had he been seized anywhere or anytime the Romans were not present, he would most probably have been stoned to death, as in the case of Stephen (Acts 7). For the present discussion, however, the mention of "sorcery" is quite remarkable. By definition, sorcery is something extraordinary or supernatural accomplished with help "from below." A miracle is the same, though achieved with help "from above." In any case, the supernatural is conceded.

This admission gains even greater importance from the fact that it comes from a hostile source. Positive testimony in a negative or hostile context becomes self-authenticating, an "admission against interest" in legal terms. Furthermore, this arrest notice also bears out the Gospel accounts of how Jesus' enemies responded to His miracles by claiming that they were accomplished not through God but Beelzebul. Clearly, this notice is strong outside evidence for the miraculous.

Clues from names

Topography also provides interesting traces of the supernatural dimension in Jesus' ministry. Bethany, where he raised Lazarus from the dead, according to John II, is still called "Betanya" by Israelis. But to the majority Arab population of that Jerusalem suburb, the name of the town is El-Lazariyeh, "the place of Lazarus." That name change was known as far back as Eusebius (church historian, A.D. ca 260-339), and exactly what one would expect if indeed Bethany had witnessed so great a miracle as the dead being raised.

A similar instance is a southwestern suburb of Damascus. To this day, that location at the edge of the Syrian capital is named Deraya, "The Vision" in Arabic, because of what happened to Saul (the future St. Paul) on the Damascus Road.

And this is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority Islamic Arabs of Damascus are hardly defenders of the Christian faith! Again, these topographical examples do not themselves prove the miraculous events at these places, but they surely are instances of "fallout" from something extraordinary that must have occurred.

The resurrection of Jesus

Jesus' own resurrection, of course, would be the supreme event about which to seek additional data. The Easter Gospels provide powerful circumstantial evidence that He did indeed triumph over death, and, equally important, so does the earlier record of St. Paul in I Corinthians 15 and elsewhere.

The transformation of The Twelve from depressed disciples to courageous conquerors for Christ who would lay down their lives in His behalf, the conversion of many Jewish priests (Acts 6:7), the shift from the Sabbath to Sunday as the day of worship, and many other circumstantial proofs offer massive internal evidence.

Again, however, in reaching out to non-Christians, the non-Biblical evidence regarding the first Easter is especially helpful.

After-effects of the miraculous are evident in the empty tomb. Neither the Gospels nor the early church paid much attention to the empty tomb because it was virtually an afterthought to the infinitely greater resurrection. But if the resurrection truly did happen, the tomb must have been empty as its first symptom. And from non-Biblical, rabbinical and circumstantial evidence, Jesus' sepulcher can be proven to be empty on that Sunday morning. To be sure, an empty tomb does not prove a resurrection, but the reverse is certainly true: you can't have a genuine resurrection without a vacant tomb.

Clear evidence that Christianity developed because of the resurrection comes also from the Jewish historian Josephus. In his famous earlier passage on Jesus, he states that the apostles " reported that [Jesus] had appeared to them three days after His crucifixion and that he was alive." (Antiquities 18:63).

The Roman pagan historian, Cornelius Tacitus, referring to Jesus' death (and probably His resurrection), states that the Christian "superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself ." (Annals 15:44).

Traces of the supernatural, once again, do not constitute categorical proof that the New Testament miracles occurred. But if they did occur, we should expect notices like these.

One might speculate as to why God did not provide us categorical proof that would convince everyone that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, or even that God Himself exists. But Jesus Himself points out in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

Accordingly, at the great 2, 000th milestone of Christianity and ever afterward, the Scriptures themselves will always be the most powerful tool in winning people for the faith, since the Holy Spirit, who engenders faith, uses them as His primary means. In preparing people to give Scriptures a fair hearing, however, it is very helpful to meet them on their own secular terms with powerful non-Biblical evidence for the fact that Jesus is truly Lord, not legend.

 Dr. Paul L. Maier is professor of Ancient History and chaplain  at Western Michigan University-Kalamazoo, MI.

Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness magazine (October, 1999).

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