The Real Jesus
AFTER learning from his apostles what people thought about him, Jesus asked them: “You, though, who do you say I am?” The Gospel of Matthew records the apostle Peter’s answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:15, 16) Others were of the same opinion. Nathanael, who later became one of the apostles, told Jesus: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are King of Israel.” (John 1:49) Jesus himself spoke of the importance of his role: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) On various occasions, he referred to himself as “the Son of God.” (John 5:24, 25; 11:4) And he backed up this claim by miraculous works, even raising the dead.
But can we really have confidence in the Gospels’ version of Jesus? Do they portray the real Jesus? The late Frederick F. Bruce, professor of Biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, England, stated: “It is not usually possible to demonstrate by historical arguments the truth of every detail in an ancient writing, whether inside or outside the Bible. It is sufficient to have reasonable confidence in a writer’s general trustworthiness; if that is established, there is an a priori likelihood that his details are true. . . . The New Testament is not less likely to be historically reliable because Christians receive it as ‘sacred’ literature.”
After examining doubts about Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels, James R. Edwards, professor of religion at Jamestown College, North Dakota, U.S.A., wrote: “We may affirm with confidence that the Gospels preserve a diverse and significant body of evidence of the actual truth about Jesus. . . . The most reasonable answer to the question why the Gospels present Jesus as they do is because that is essentially who Jesus was. The Gospels faithfully preserve the memory that he left on his followers, that he was divinely legitimated and empowered to be God’s Son and Servant.” *
In Search of Jesus
What about non-Biblical references to Jesus Christ? How are they assessed? The works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and a few other classical writers include numerous references to Jesus. Of them, The New Encyclopædia Britannica (1995) says: “These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.”
Sadly, modern scholars, in their quest for the “real” or “historical” Jesus, seem to have hidden his true identity behind layers of baseless speculation, pointless doubts, and unfounded theorizing. In a sense, they are guilty of the mythmaking of which they falsely accuse the Gospel writers. Some are so eager to feed their own reputation and to link their name to a startling new theory that they fail to examine honestly the evidence about Jesus. In the process, they create a “Jesus” that amounts to a figment of scholarly imagination.
For those who want to find him, the real Jesus can be found in the Bible. Luke Johnson, professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, argues that most research on the historical Jesus misses the Biblical objective. He says that it may be interesting to examine the social, political, anthropological, and cultural contexts of Jesus’ life and era. Yet, he adds that discovering what scholars call the historical Jesus “is hardly the point of Scripture,” which is “more concerned with describing the character of Jesus,” his message, and his role as Redeemer. So, what was Jesus’ true character and message?
The Real Jesus
The Gospels—the four Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life—portray a man of great empathy. Pity and compassion moved Jesus to help people who were suffering from illness, blindness, and other afflictions. (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 20:34) The death of his friend Lazarus and the grief this caused to Lazarus’ sisters moved Jesus to ‘groan and give way to tears.’ (John 11:32-36) In fact, the Gospels reveal the wide range of Jesus’ feelings—sympathy for a person with leprosy, exuberance over his disciples’ successes, indignation at coldhearted legalists, and sadness over Jerusalem’s rejection of the Messiah.
When Jesus performed a miracle, he often focused on the recipient’s part in the process: “Your faith has made you well.” (Matthew 9:22) He praised Nathanael as “a real Israelite,” saying: “There is nothing false in him!” (John 1:47, Today’s English Version) When some thought that a woman’s appreciative gift was extravagant, Jesus defended her and said that the account of her generosity would be long remembered. (Matthew 26:6-13) He proved himself a real friend and affectionate companion to his followers, ‘loving them to the end.’—John 13:1; 15:11-15.
The Gospels also show that Jesus quickly identified with most people that he met. Whether talking with a woman at a well, a religious teacher in a garden, or a fisherman by a lake, he went directly to their heart. After Jesus’ opening words, many of these people revealed their innermost thoughts to him. He struck a responsive chord in them. Although people of his time might keep men in authority at a safe distance, in Jesus’ case people crowded around him. They liked being with Jesus; they felt comfortable in his company. Children felt at ease with him, and when using a child as an example, he did not merely stand the child before his disciples but also “put his arms around it.” (Mark 9:36; 10:13-16) Indeed, the Gospels portray Jesus as a man who had such charisma that people stayed for three days just to listen to his absorbing words.—Matthew 15:32.
Jesus’ perfection did not make him hypercritical or arrogant and overbearing toward the imperfect, sin-laden people among whom he lived and preached. (Matthew 9:10-13; 21:31, 32; Luke 7:36-48; 15:1-32; 18:9-14) Jesus was never demanding. He did not add to people’s burdens. Instead, he said: “Come to me, all you who are toiling . . . I will refresh you.” His disciples found him to be “mild-tempered and lowly in heart”; his yoke was kindly, and his load was light.—Matthew 11:28-30.
Jesus’ character comes through in the Gospel accounts with a decided ring of truth. It would not be easy for four different individuals to concoct an out-of-the-ordinary character and then present a consistent portrait of him throughout four distinct narratives. It would be nearly impossible for four different writers to describe the same person and consistently paint the same picture of him if that character never really existed.
Historian Michael Grant asks a thought-provoking question: “How comes it that, through all the Gospel traditions without exception, there comes a remarkably firmly-drawn portrait of an attractive young man moving freely about among women of all sorts, including the decidedly disreputable, without a trace of sentimentality, unnaturalness, or prudery, and yet, at every point, maintaining a simple integrity of character?” The reasonable answer is that such a man really existed and acted in the way the Bible says.
The Real Jesus and Your Future
Besides giving a real-life picture of Jesus while he was on earth, the Bible shows that he had a prehuman existence as the only-begotten Son of God, “the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15) Twenty centuries ago, God transferred the life of his heavenly Son to the womb of a Jewish virgin for him to be born as a human. (Matthew 1:18) During his earthly ministry, Jesus proclaimed God’s Kingdom as the only hope for distressed humanity, and he trained his disciples to continue this preaching work.—Matthew 4:17; 10:5-7; 28:19, 20.
On Nisan 14 (about April 1), 33 C.E., Jesus was arrested, tried, sentenced, and executed on the false charge of sedition. (Matthew 26:18-20, Mt 26:48–27:50) Jesus’ death serves as a ransom, releasing believing mankind from their sinful state and thus opening the way to eternal life for all who exercise faith in him. (Romans 3:23, 24; 1 John 2:2) On Nisan 16, Jesus was resurrected, and shortly thereafter he ascended back to heaven. (Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-9) As Jehovah’s appointed King, the resurrected Jesus has full authority to carry out God’s original purpose for man. (Isaiah 9:6, 7; Luke 1:32, 33) Yes, the Bible presents Jesus as the key figure in the outworking of God’s purposes.
In the first century, multitudes accepted Jesus for what he was—the promised Messiah, or Christ, sent to earth to vindicate Jehovah’s sovereignty and to die as a ransom for mankind. (Matthew 20:28; Luke 2:25-32; John 17:25, 26; 18:37) In the face of fierce persecution, people would hardly have been motivated to become Jesus’ disciples if they had been unsure of his identity. Courageously and zealously, they took up the commission he gave them, to “make disciples of people of all the nations.”—Matthew 28:19.
Today, millions of sincere and informed Christians know that Jesus is no legendary figure. They accept him as the enthroned King of God’s established Kingdom in heaven, who is about to take full control of the earth and its affairs. This divine government is welcome news because it promises relief from world problems. True Christians manifest their loyal support of Jehovah’s chosen King by declaring “this good news of the kingdom” to others.—Matthew 24:14.
Those who support the Kingdom arrangement through Christ, the Son of the living God, will live to enjoy eternal blessings. These blessings can be yours too! The publishers of this journal will be happy to help you know the real Jesus.
^ par. 5 For a detailed examination of the Gospel accounts, see chapters 5 to 7 of the book The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s?, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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What Others Have Said
“I have regarded Jesus of Nazareth as one amongst the mighty teachers that the world has had. . . . I shall say to the Hindus that your lives will be incomplete unless you reverently study the teachings of Jesus.”—Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Message of Jesus Christ.
“A character so original, so complete, so uniformly consistent, so perfect, so human and yet so high above all human greatness, can be neither a fraud nor a fiction. . . . It would take more than a Jesus to invent a Jesus.”—Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church.
“That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels.”—Will Durant, Caesar and Christ.
“It may seem incomprehensible that a globe-spanning religious movement could have been triggered by a nonexistent person dreamed up as the ancient equivalent of a marketing device, given the ranks of incontestably real people who have tried and failed to found faiths.”—Gregg Easterbrook, Beside Still Waters.
‘As a literary historian I am perfectly convinced that whatever the Gospels are, they are not legends. They are not artistic enough to be legends. Most of the life of Jesus is unknown to us, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.’—C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock.
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The Gospels reveal the wide range of Jesus’ feelings