Originally published in the Areopagus Journal 5/4 (July-August 2005): 30-31. Reprinted with permission from Areopagus Journal.
_Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?_
Edited by Paul Copan. IVP, 1998; 179 pages.
Is the Jesus who walked the streets of Nazareth the same Jesus, the Christ, to whom the New Testament Gospels attribute miracles and divinity? Can Christians legitimately claim that these men are in fact one and the same? In short, who is the “real Jesus?” Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up is one of few attempts at dialogue between evangelicals and liberals about the historical Jesus. Eminent theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig represents the evangelical camp, while John Dominic Crossan, a prominent member of the Jesus Seminar and professor of biblical studies at DePaul University, represents the latter perspective.
As many conservative scholars have observed, “Jesus of Nazareth is under fire.” The belief that the person Jesus of Nazareth is one and the same with Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, has suffered sustained attack in the last two centuries. Perhaps it has been popularized more in the past ten or fifteen years by its appearances in the general media (most recently so in ABC 20/20’s piece, The Resurrection: Searching for Answers, which aired Sunday, May 22, 2005, which can be accessed by visiting http://www.abcnews.com). This prolonged debate over Jesus’ deity has recently gained widespread attention, primarily due to the efforts of the Jesus Seminar, an annual gathering of liberal scholars who are “organized to renew the quest of the historical Jesus.”
Commonly labeled “the quest for the historical Jesus,” this investigation of Jesus’ life began in the late 1700’s with scholars who thought it necessary to distinguish between theological dogma and historically demonstrated facts. Their philosophical assumptions led them to seek exclusively natural explanations for Jesus’ actions and claims. This naturalist predisposition also shapes the Jesus Seminar’s research and is evident in Crossan’s contribution to the book (p. 30). While he denies the charge, his assertion that “the supernatural always…operates through the screen of the natural (p. 45),” belies his dissent.
Scholars involved in the “Second Quest”(launched in the nineteenth century) argued that the portrait of Christ accepted by Christianity was almost entirely mythological, an allegation repeated by scholars of the Jesus Seminar. From the beginning doubt has been cast upon the reliability of the Gospels’ portrayal of his life (for response see Blomberg’s, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP, 1987). Naturalist presuppositions are evident here as well and shape their analysis of the Gospels, as evidenced by Crossan’s defining such references to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” as “symbolic…figurative…metaphorical” (p. 35). Craig argues that the Gospels contain literal events; there is no need for “recourse to a misleading metaphor like the resurrection” (p. 42).
The New Quest, which is the final generally recognized quest, was concerned with methodology. Scholars involved in this quest (rightly) seek to identify Jesus within his first-century, Jewish milieu. The early New Quest sought to discern Jesus from the myth of the early Church. These scholars assumed that the early Church heavily embellished the Gospels. Though Crossan and the Jesus Seminar employ a “Second Quest” approach, they do resemble the early New Quest insomuch as they endorse an inventive view of the early Christian community (see esp. footnotes on p. 30). Craig denies such a view and argues that the Gospels’ claims are real historical facts. If approached objectively, the Gospels will be believed innocent until proven guilty, rather than vice versa as the Jesus Seminar would have it.
As the book demonstrates, the debate is not exclusively a textual one. Discussions about the historical Jesus also include philosophical and theological arguments. Craig argues Jesus’ deity from the validity of the resurrection (p. 26). Surely if there are good reasons to believe that the physical resurrection occurred, then we will consequently have good reasons to believe that Jesus Christ was who He claimed to be (p. 57). (As Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:14, Christian faith is vain apart from the resurrection, which is one of Craig’s main points.) All four Gospels attest to the empty tomb. Either as Crossan asserts, such accounts are metaphorical (p. 53ff) and “empty tombs don’t prove anything (p. 98),” or they are as Craig affirms: actual, physical facts supporting the evangelical position (p. 101). Craig further argues that there are several well-attested accounts of Jesus appearing publicly to people after His resurrection (p. 28). These accounts would stand, he maintains, even when weighed on the Jesus Seminar’s scales (p. 55).
Crossan and Craig provide ample bibliographic material to satisfy the involved reader. Following the dialog between Craig and Crossan, four experts offer their reflections on the debate. Robert Miller and Marcus Borg represent the Jesus Seminar, while Craig Blomberg and Ben Witherington III offer evangelical responses. Following the four responsive articles, the debaters each answer the various critiques offered against them.
Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up offers an informative and well-written account of the historical and contemporary quest for the historical Jesus. While it provides scholarly historical, philosophical, and theological arguments, this book can be read with profit by non-scholars.
Reviewed by R. Keith Loftin