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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" (John 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 "É 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 É." (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).

Bible References

John 11:57
But the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him.

Acts 7
1 Then the high priest asked him, "Are these charges true?" 2 To this he replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 3 `Leave your country and your people,' God said, `and go to the land I will show you.' 4 "So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5 He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6 God spoke to him in this way: `Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,' God said, `and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.' 8 Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. 9 "Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace. 11 "Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph's family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money. 17 "As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased. 18 Then another king, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. 20 "At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father's house. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh's daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. 23 "When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, `Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?' 27 "But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, `Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?' 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons. 30 "After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord's voice: 32 `I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look. 33 "Then the Lord said to him, `Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.' 35 "This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, `Who made you ruler and judge?' He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. 37 "This is that Moses who told the Israelites, `God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.' 38 He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us. 39 "But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, `Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt--we don't know what has happened to him!' 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: "`Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? 43 You have lifted up the shrine of Molech and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile' beyond Babylon. 44 "Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God's favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built the house for him. 48 "However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: 49 "`Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? 50 Has not my hand made all these things?' 51 "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him-- 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." 54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.

1 Corinthians 15
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. 12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. 29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I die every day--I mean that, brothers--just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." 33 Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character." 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God--I say this to your shame. 35 But someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. 42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being" ; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. 50 I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Acts 6:7
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

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