Recently my daughter came home from college and told her mother that her history teacher boldly proclaimed, “There is no historical evidence that Jesus was the Son of God.”
My initial response to hearing such a statement was emotional, but I have learned that emotional responses are usually not the correct response. So I checked my emotions, hoping to come up with a more reasonable reply. My response is not for the teacher’s benefit. I doubt I will ever meet him/her, and if I did, I doubt I would change his mind. My reply is for my daughter and her friends and the college students you may know. If you like what I have written, please share with those you know who are attending secular colleges and universities.
After spending significant time contemplating the history teacher’s statement, my response can be summarized in one word.
Now, let me expound on my one word reply.
On the surface the statement, “There is no historical evidence that Jesus was the Son of God,” is a silly statement. It’s just as silly as the statement, “There is no historical evidence that Cleopatra was a beautiful woman.” Historical evidence can neither prove nor disprove values like beauty, justice, integrity, honesty, and most importantly, there is no way historical evidence can prove divinity. Historical evidence was never meant to prove such things. Such things are beyond the scope of historical evidence. Historical evidence can’t even prove that yesterday was a good day, or a bad day. Historical evidence can only report on things that occurred yesterday. Judgments of “good” and “bad” are beyond the scope of historical evidence. The only thing historical evidence can prove is what people did, or said, or claimed to do and say, or claimed to believe, and the actual, physical effects such actions and words and beliefs had on the people who lived in the context of what happened and what was spoken and what was believed.
Thus, while there is no historical evidence that Cleopatra was a beautiful woman, there is plenty of historical evidence that people claimed she was a beautiful woman. Writings from the time period describe her beauty, paintings from the time period describe her beauty, and even modern day movies portray her as a beautiful woman, but there is no historical evidence that she actually was beautiful, only that people claimed she was. And so, a historian considers all the evidence of what people claimed, and then reaches his or her own conclusion that she really was or was not beautiful. But the question of her beauty will always be open for debate. The historical certainty of her beauty cannot be settled one way or another.
Likewise, historical evidence cannot prove divinity. Historical evidence cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of God. Historical evidence cannot prove non-historical facts. Historical evidence can only report what people have claimed to believe about God, and what type of actions have resulted from such belief. Historical evidence can only report what people have claimed to believe about Jesus and what Jesus claimed to believe about Himself. And there are scores of historical evidences that people claimed (and still claim) Jesus to have been the Son of God. There is even ample historical evidence that a guy named Jesus lived in and around Galilee a couple of thousand years ago, and people considered Him to be a Rabbi, and that He taught many incredible things, and claimed to have healed people, cast out demons, and raised other people from the dead. There are historical reports of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen such miracles. [The Jewish historian, Josephus (b. 37CE, d. 100CE) and the Roman historian, Philo (b. 20BC, d. 50AD), just to name two.] There is even historical evidence (beyond the New Testament), that a guy named Jesus was crucified by the Romans and that His followers claimed to have seen Him alive, three days later. (Again, the Jewish historian, Josephus and the Roman historian, Philo.) None of these historical evidences prove or disprove His divinity, only that He claimed to be divine and others thought Him to be divine, and His claims of divinity affected His own actions and behavior, as well as the actions and behaviors of others. What historians, and non-historians, must do is consider all the evidence that is given about Jesus’ life and message, and what people claim He said and did, and all that has been written about Him, and then, decide if all the eyewitness evidence and written records are valid or invalid, and then make a decision about what they believe about Jesus.
Instead of determining Jesus’ divinity or non-divinity in a history class, a better analogy would be determining His divinity or non-divinity in a courtroom. In a courtroom there would be a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney. Witnesses would be called to testify, and writings would be entered as evidence. Imagine you were on the jury for this trial of a lifetime. After closing arguments, you would weigh all the evidence that was presented and then reach a verdict, based on the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ultimately, whether or not Jesus was (and is) divine is a statement of faith that can be neither proven nor disproven solely on historical facts. But while it is a statement of faith, it is not a statement of blind faith. It is a statement of faith based on reliable evidence. I have chosen to accept Jesus’ divinity. I believe the evidence to be extremely reliable. I have bet my life on Jesus being who He claimed to be. I have bet eternity on His divinity. My daughter’s history teacher has also bet his life, and eternity, on what he believes about Jesus. Listen to the words of Paul:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…Where is the wise man? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:18-21, NIV).
If I did have the opportunity to ask the professor a question, I think I would ask him why he felt the need to make such a silly statement. What was (or is) the educational value of such a question? In no way do I believe the professor to be silly. I imagine him to be intelligent and far more knowledgeable of history than me. But why make such a silly statement? I can only assume he made the statement to get a reaction from the students. The only educational value of the statement is to incite a lively debate.
Another question I would ask the professor is why he chose to single out Jesus? Why didn’t he remark, “There is no historical evidence that Mohammed was a prophet of Allah?” That statement would have been just as accurate and just as silly and just as debatable as the statement, “There is no historical evidence that Jesus was the Son of God.” If his classes are like my classes (I teach sociology at the same college) there’s a good chance his classes are made up of both Christians and Muslims. But he only singled out Christians. Why? Did he have a hidden agenda? If he did, what place did his agenda have in a history class?
I will probably never know the answers to my questions, but some words of Jesus do come to mind: “For whatever is in your heart determines what you say” (Matthew 12:34, NLT). That is, if Jesus really spoke those words. The only historical evidence that He did speak those words is the Bible. Then again, “There is no historical evidence that the Bible is the Word of God.” But that’s another silly statement that may or may not be deserving of another silly blog.
I would really, really like to know what you think about the teacher’s statement and my response.