The Historical Jesus:
The Lewis Trilemma
The first three arguments in this book (the Cosmological, Teleological and Moral Arguments) were ones I came across when I first researched into Christianity to ascertain if it had any legs to stand on. Although I found them quite convincing, they did not compel me to conversion to Christianity. However, these last two arguments (the Lewis Trilemma and Minimal Facts Argument) did. The historical man of Jesus, who lived c.2000 years ago, is the central claim of Christianity and one which can be analysed with rigor.
Did Jesus ever exist?
It is the view of some people (though the number is small) that Jesus never existed. However, among scholars, the fact of Jesus’ existence is incontrovertible. Even the most militant of atheist historians unanimously accept that Jesus existed.
The Emperor of Rome at the time of Jesus was Caesar Tiberius, and Tiberius’ name is mentioned in 10 different historical documents that date to the Ancient Era. In comparison, there are 40 different documents that mention Jesus’ name1.
In The God Delusion, Prof. Richard Dawkins wrote “It is even possible to mount a serious…historical case that Jesus never lived at all”2. However, such was the extent of his subsequent hammering by the historical profession that during his second recorded debate with Prof. John Lennox, Dawkins uttered the staggering words “Maybe I alluded to the possibility that some historians think Jesus never existed. I take that back! Jesus existed.”3
Did Jesus claim to be God?
The Christian doctrine of the incarnation states that c.2000 years ago, God took human form in the man of Jesus. Therefore, it is logical to first investigate whether Jesus made this claim about Himself.
As one would expect, the Bible contain several accounts of Jesus claiming explicitly and implicitly to be God. In John 10:30 Jesus says “I and the Father are one”4 (“The Father” was one of the Jewish names for God), while in John 8:58, after being asked “who do you think you are?” Jesus replied “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!”5 This statement appears to be grammatically incorrect; “I am” seems it ought to be “I was” or “I have been”. “I am” is most likely a reference to God’s Old Testament name for Himself “Yahweh” which literally means “I am”. The Jews to whom Jesus was speaking knew this to be the case, for they immediately tried to stone him for blasphemy.5
It is also clear from study of extra-biblical accounts that the early Christians genuinely believed that Jesus was God. There are many recorded creeds from the early church that explicitly reference the divinity of Jesus. On studying these creeds, the eminent historical scholar, Prof. Gary Habermas concludes:
“These creeds reveal that the church did not simply teach Jesus’ deity a generation later, as is so often repeated in contemporary theology, because this doctrine is definitely present in the earliest church…The best explanation for these creeds is that they properly represent Jesus’ own teachings.”6
We also have trusted recorded accounts from enemies of the church that corroborate the Christian accounts of Jesus’ claims to be God. For example Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Bithynia (northwest Turkey) and an important Roman historian, wrote:
“I interrogated them (Christians) whether they were in fact Christians; if they confessed it, I repeated the question twice, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed… they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god”.7
Lucian of Samosata was a 2nd Century Greek satirist who wrote:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…(they) deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.”8
Given the notion that God could take human form was so alien to the traditional Jewish teaching, it is logical to deduce that the transformation of belief spawned from Jesus’ explicit and unambiguous claims to be the creator God of the universe.
Wasn’t Jesus just a great moral teacher?
In my experience, this is the commonest-held belief about Jesus- that he was a great human moral teacher, but nothing more. However, given the evidence that Jesus claimed to be God, this stance is seriously undermined. Someone who was just a human but claimed to be God would not be someone from whom I would want to take moral guidance! The great 20th Century philosopher C. S. Lewis summarised the position with characteristic eloquence:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to”9
Another commonly held belief is that Jesus was a prophet or messenger from God. This is of course the view held by most Muslims in accordance with their holy book, the Qur’an (written 609-643 AD). In Qur’an Surah 5:75, we read “The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him.”10 However, it would be absurd for a prophet of God, who is just human, to claim to be God. Therefore, in order to sustain this view, the Qur’an also denies that Jesus ever claimed to be God; Surah 5:116 says:
“And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'” He will say, “Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen.”11
However, the view that Jesus never claimed to be God is difficult to sustain, given the extensive opposing historical evidence. History is emphatic: Jesus claimed to be God. Believing that Jesus never claimed to be God would have to involve ignoring the evidence. However, if one ignores the evidence, anything could be true.
The Lewis Trilemma: Who could Jesus have been?
Once we rule out the possibility of Jesus being a human teacher or prophet, we can conclude that there are three remaining options (as first penned by C. S. Lewis, hence the name):
- Lunatic: Jesus was just human but was deluded, genuinely thinking that he was God
- Liar: Jesus was just human and knew it, but tried to convince people he was God
- Lord: Jesus was telling the truth when he claimed to be God
These three options seem to be the only ones: Jesus either was God or he wasn’t, and if he wasn’t God, he either knew it or he didn’t. We can test these three positions to see which one is backed up by the most evidence.
- Lunatic Hypothesis
People who claim to be God are not a small group- a quick visit to a hospital psychiatric ward will confirm that. Medics usually label these people as “schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur”. Did Jesus exhibit the characteristics of a lunatic?
The view that Jesus was a lunatic is not massively held today, and it was virtually unheard of in the Ancient World. Even enemies of Jesus concluded that he was sane; for example, Josephus, who is one of the most important Jewish Ancient historians, described Jesus as “a wise man who was called Jesus… And his conduct was good, and (he) was known to be virtuous.”12, while the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata described Jesus as of “distinguished personage”13.
However, I think the most compelling evidence for Jesus’ sanity comes from the testimonies of his close followers. If someone persistently claimed to be God, most people would probably eventually ask them to “prove it”. It seems logical that people must have asked that of Jesus, and history tells us about two types of proofs people wanted: proof of omniscience by evidence of wisdom, and proof of omnipotence by evidence of miracles.
We read that public intellectuals grilled Jesus on the hi-brow philosophical and theological issues of the time, to test his claims to be God14. If Jesus were a lunatic, one can expect that he may have given a lucky, clever-sounding answer once or twice. However, sooner or later, his wisdom would have run out, or at very least, he would have started to contradict himself and make factual inaccuracies. However, it was His disciples, who followed Jesus throughout His entire teaching life, who most vehemently defended the case for Him being God. The people who were in the best position to notice Jesus’ insanity came out proclaiming His wisdom.
The other strong piece of evidence that Jesus was not a lunatic is the accounts of His miraculous deeds. The gospels are packed with reports of Jesus doing supernatural activities: He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, walked on water, turned water into wine, etc. However, it surprises many to learn that the secular Ancient historians largely agree that Jesus did supernatural deeds. Josephus writes “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats”15, while the Babylonian Talmud (a collection of Ancient Jewish Rabbinic writings) states that Jesus “practiced sorcery”16. The Talmud posited evil as the explanation of Jesus’ “miracles”, but in doing so, affirmed that Jesus did indeed do supernatural acts.
It would be possible to attribute “magic tricks” to the supernatural deeds of Jesus; for example the American magician duo Penn and Teller perform a stage trick in which water appears to turn into wine. However, it would be absurd to hypothesise that Jesus “unwittingly” did magic tricks; if the miracles were tricks, Jesus would have known that he was not a supernatural being, so we would put him in the second category of “liar”.
- Liar Hypothesis
Jesus’ clever answers to tough questioning and supernatural deeds are explained away by some with the hypothesis that Jesus was a clever and highly prepared liar, with an extensive knowledge of theology, philosophy and magic tricks. Given the historical evidence described thus far, this position, (although arguably shaky) seems possible.
However, there are two pieces of evidence that greatly undermine this view: prophecies and the resurrection.
The Old Testament contains more than 300 prophesies about God’s promised Messiah, and every single one was fulfilled in the life of Jesus. When asked if Jesus could have fulfilled the prophesies by chance, Jewish theologian Louis Lapides replied:
“The odds are so astronomical that they rule that out. Someone did the math and estimated that the probability of just eight prophecies being fulfilled is one chance in one hundred million billion. That number is millions of times greater than the total number of people who’ve ever walked the planet!”17
It is simply a mathematical impossibility that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies by chance.
There are some prophesies about Jesus’ life that Jesus could control, for example: that He would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey18, He would teach in parables19, He would be silent before His accusers20, and so on. These have led some to postulate that Jesus treated the Old Testament like a script, and simply “acted out” the prophesies.
However, there are many prophesies over which Jesus could have had no control, if he were just a man, such as: He would be born in Bethlehem21, He would be preceded by a messenger22, He would be betrayed by a friend23, He would be crucified with thieves24, people would gamble for His garments25, His bones would not be broken26, He would be buried in a rich man’s tomb27, etc.
The other common explanation is that people edited the Old Testament after Jesus and added in the prophesies. This appeared to be a reasonable and seemingly untouchable argument, up until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. The discovery was of a cave about eight miles south of Jericho, containing large jars in which leather scrolls of Old Testament books had been preserved in excellent condition. These scrolls dated around 100BC28. The discovery was ground-breaking; it showed that the prophesies really had been written before Jesus’ lifetime. As renowned theologian Roger Carswell puts it: “Jesus is the only man in history whose biography was written before He was born!”29
All these facts point towards Jesus being more than just a clever, well-prepared man. His claims to be God, wise teaching, supernatural deeds and fulfilment of prophesies seem to leave only one logical option; He was indeed God!
However, there is one final piece of evidence that, in my view, seals the case for Jesus being God- the events surrounding Jesus’ death and apparent resurrection. This is what our final chapter will be all about.
- Nabeel Qureshi, Untitled Lecture at Georgia Tech University (4th November 2013)
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 122
- Lennox vs. Dawkins- Has Science Buried God?, hosted by Fixedpoint Foundations (2009)
- John 10:30 (NIV)
- John 8:58-59 (NIV)
- Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History (Monarch Books, 1990), 169
- Pliny the Younger, Letters 96 (emphasis added)
- Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13 (emphasis added)
- S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (William Collins, 2012), 54-56
- Qur’an Surah 5:75 (Sahih International)
- Qur’an Surah 5:116 (Sahih International)
- Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, 33
- Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13
- Mark 2:18-22, Mark 10:1-12, Mark 12:13-17, Mark 12,18-27
- Josephus, Antiquities63-64
- The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein, vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281
- Lee Strobel, interview in The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998), 246
- Zechariah 9:9 and Matthew 21:1-11
- Psalm 78:2 and e.g. Matthew 13:1-52
- Isaiah 53:7 and Mark 15:16-20
- Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:1
- Isaiah 40:3 and Matthew 3:1-12
- Psalm 41:9 and Matthew 26:14-16
- Isaiah 53:12 and Luke 23:32
- Psalm 22:18 and John 19:24
- Psalm 34:20 and John 19:31-34
- Isaiah 53:9 and John 19: 38-42
- Amy Orr-Ewing, Why Trust the Bible? (IVP, 2008), 46
- Roger Carswell, Real Lives Mission Week, All Souls Church (2014)