Monday, October 17, 2005

Skepticism and the Incarnation (Part 2)

Having become accustomed to Christianity and much of the evidence for it, we tend to under appreciate the significance of Christianity's claims and the evidence for those claims. We also tend to accept some of the double standards that critics of Christianity employ, so that we end up being more critical of Christian claims than we are of other worldview claims. Martin Hengel writes:

"Thus we have only one biography of Muhammad (who died in 632), by Ibn Hisham (who died in 834, 212 years after the Hijra), which has incorporated parts of the lost earlier biography by Ibn Ishaq (died 767). Although the chronological distance from the historical subject in the Muhammad biography is much greater [than it is with Jesus], the historical scepticism of critical European scholarship is substantially less here....Already for him [Paul] the eternal Son of God had become a real man in space and time, in Judaea, and only a few years previously. This is a quite incredible and revolutionary message, without analogy in the ancient world!" (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 6, 151)

People often make much of what an author like Paul doesn't say. Some people will even argue, absurdly, that Jesus may not have existed on earth, since Paul doesn't give many details in his writings about the earthly life of Jesus. And people will sometimes claim, for example, that the virgin birth may not have occurred, because Paul doesn't mention it. (But Luke does mention it, and he was a close companion of Paul. If Luke knew of it, Paul most likely did as well. And Paul seems to cite Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18.) But what about the significance of what Paul does mention?

An often-overlooked example is the sinlessness of Jesus. Paul refers to Jesus as sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21). Think about the context in which the claim was made. Paul wasn't just a contemporary of Jesus. He was also a former enemy of Christianity and persecutor with a high ranking in Jewish circles. If there had been convincing Jewish arguments against the sinlessness of Jesus, Paul surely would have known of them. Instead, he refers to Jesus as sinless and even cites His behavior under the most difficult of circumstances as an example for others to follow (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus made His sinlessness an issue, even to the point of challenging His opponents about it (Matthew 3:15, John 7:18, 8:29, 8:46, 15:10, Revelation 3:7). His Messianic claims and the early Christian association of Jesus with Isaiah's Suffering Servant would have raised expectations for Jesus' behavior (Isaiah 53:9). His enemies would have had motivation to look for sin in His life.

We know that Jesus went through many circumstances that would have tempted Him or any other human to sin. He was frequently in public, and He had people near Him who "stood by Me in My trials" (Luke 22:28), not just in good times.

One of them was Peter. He not only was with Jesus often, including when He was being led to crucifixion (John 18:3-27), but also was a cause of difficulty for Jesus and saw how Jesus responded (Matthew 16:22-23, Luke 22:61). He refers to Jesus as sinless, repeatedly and emphatically (1 Peter 1:19, 2:22, 3:18), even citing Jesus as an example of how to undergo suffering without sin (1 Peter 2:21-25).

Matthew also was a disciple of Jesus who was with Him under many circumstances. He refers to Jesus "fulfilling all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15) and refers to Him as Yahweh incarnate (Matthew 18:20, 28:20).

The author of Hebrews knew of many of the details of Jesus' suffering (Hebrews 5:7-8). He refers to Jesus as sinless (Hebrews 4:15, 7:26).

John not only had many of the same experiences with Jesus that Peter and the other disciples had, but also was an eyewitness of Jesus' crucifixion (John 19:26-35). He refers to Jesus as sinless (John 7:18, 8:29, 8:46, 15:10, 1 John 3:5, Revelation 3:7).

Who else would have seen how Jesus behaved? The people who spoke against Him during His earthly ministry would have, and so would the people who tortured and crucified Him. Certainly those are circumstances under which we would expect any mere human to sin. The first century Jewish historian Josephus, while not referring to Jesus as sinless, does call Him "a wise man", suggesting that even Jewish sources hostile to Jesus recognized a significant positive quality to His character.

Jesus Himself held high moral standards, as even many modern critics of Christianity will acknowledge. When He referred to Himself as sinless, He was doing so in a way that set Him apart from every other human He was interacting with. He often rebuked His own followers for their sin (Matthew 16:23, Luke 24:25), and He expected every one of His followers to acknowledge his own sinfulness. He gave them a repentant tax collector as an example for all of them to follow (Luke 18:10-14). He came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). When Jesus claimed to be sinless, He made that claim in the context of holding a high moral standard, not a low standard.

We know that the early Christians had high moral standards (Ephesians 5:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7, 5:21-22, Titus 1:15), even to the point of referring to themselves "stumbling in many ways" (James 3:2). They wouldn't have been evaluating Jesus by a low standard. If they had wanted to call Him righteous without claiming that He was sinless, they could have done so.

They don’t just refer to Jesus as sinless when somebody raises the issue. They bring the issue up themselves, state it repeatedly and emphatically, and tell people to emulate Jesus as a moral example, even singling out His behavior during times of suffering, as we see in 1 Peter.

We might expect some careless people to refer to a sinful human as sinless in rare circumstances. But the larger the number of early Christian sources there are who refer to Jesus as sinless, and the more emphatic they are on the point, the more difficult it would be to explain that claim on naturalistic grounds. The early Christians came from a Jewish background and held a high view of the Old Testament scriptures. The Old Testament is emphatic about the universal sinfulness of mankind (1 Kings 8:46, Psalm 14:3, 130:3, 143:2, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Isaiah 64:6). Even a righteous man such as Isaiah or Daniel is referred to as a sinner (Isaiah 6:5, Daniel 9:20). Craig Keener writes:

“Because most early Jewish circles acknowledged that everyone, occasionally barring at most some extremely rare saints like one of the patriarchs, had sinned, Jesus’ claim [in John 8:46] would appear remarkable….normally even the patriarchs were not thought completely sinless” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 763 and n. 601)

We know that the early Christians agreed with the Old Testament emphasis on universal sinfulness (Romans 3:9-23, Galatians 3:22, James 3:2, 1 John 1:8-10). Any Jewish people alive at the time of Jesus’ earthly life who didn’t hold such a view would have been few and far between.

Of course, there would be no way for us to verify Jesus' sinlessness throughout His life in the sense of having evidence that He never had a sinful thought, never had bad motives, etc. But if He behaved in such a way as to lead eyewitnesses and contemporaries to respond as I've outlined above, that's highly significant. These were, after all, eyewitnesses and contemporaries, including people suffering and dying for their view of Jesus, not people living hundreds of years later in comfort and convenience. Speculating that all of these sources might have been mistaken is easy. But living your life in such a way as to lead eyewitnesses and contemporaries to think that you were sinless isn't so easy.

When we consider the evidence for Christianity, we ought to consider prophecy, Jesus' healings, the miracles performed by the apostles, and other such well known and often cited data. But we should also consider the high view of Jesus held by eyewitnesses and contemporaries of His life, such as belief in His deity and sinlessness. Those claims couldn't have been made so early and so widely without comparisons being made between those claims and what was known about how Jesus lived. Why, then, would they conclude that Jesus was God incarnate?