(The London Free Press – December 28, 1999)
“Jesus Christ. Superstar. Do you believe what they say you are?” The jingle from the popular rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, catchy as it is, is an incredibly sad reminder that there are people who don’t have an inkling of this season’s joy.
Thirty per cent of Canadians say Jesus isn’t for them — a figure relatively unchanged from the mid ’70s. Pollster Angus Reid says the rest of us believe, at least intellectually and somewhat privately, the basic tenets of historic Christianity: that Jesus is divine and rose from the dead.
One should not be too hard on doubters who must suffer the season to varying degrees. Many are very nice people. Their arguments, however, are nonsense. They usually revolve around cursory studies that suggest, if Jesus lived at all, he was a legend built over time. He may have been a revolutionary, a sage and an iconoclastic Jew, but no more.
Some luminous beacons suggest Jesus tapped into our own potential in a new way. Yes, Jesus is a powerful symbol to lead people to do great things. But born of a virgin? No. Jesus himself never said he was divine. He didn’t die on any rugged, Roman cross and he certainly did not rise from the dead. He moved to India and got married.
Accepting any world view, religious or otherwise, requires faith. Yet there is compelling evidence that makes crossing the bridge to the traditional Christ reasonable.
Consider Jesus is the only leader of any world religion who claimed power to forgive sin, who claimed his miracles were signs of his own kingdom and who foretold his own death and resurrection. Many eyewitness accounts have Jesus claiming that those who saw him saw God — a claim that enraged both Jewish and Roman authorities.
Consider the Bible, regardless of particular modern translation, is amazingly reliable. Why? In ancient literature, the more copies found, the better comparison to reproduce the original text. For example, historians have uncovered seven copies of Plato’s Tetralogies and 643 copies of Homer’s The Iliad. The New Testament? More than 5,000 copies, in the original Greek alone. Princeton professor Bruce Metzger calculates copy distortion within 0.2 per cent.
Also, Jesus’ definitive biographies, the four gospels, were written 30 to 60 years after his crucifixion, a newsflash for the time. Compare them to the earliest biography of Alexander the Great (400 years after his death) or Virgil (300 years) or Caesar’s War Commentaries (900 years), works considered generally reliable by history’s yardstick. In addition, of the 24 ancient sources which concern Jesus’ divine nature, seven are secular.
What about Jewish prophecies, which created a fingerprint of the coming Messiah?
Based on events, some out of the control of Jesus, such as where he was born, mathematician Peter Stoner has calculated the odds of anyone but Jesus of Nazareth being the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies as one in a trillion to the power of 13.
Then there is circumstantial evidence. If early disciples did not see a raised Jesus, why would they die for a lie? More so, 30,000 Jewish men were executed during Jesus’s time.
Yet five weeks after his crucifixion, 10,000 Jews were following him, claiming he initiated a new religion. What, if not Christ’s empty tomb, is the epicentre of the quake sending cultural and sociological shock waves over the centuries? Something happened.
In our time there are plenty of clues showing the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history. Lawyer and former Chicago Tribune legal editor Lee Strobel shows a good number in The Case for Christ, a fair investigative work drawing on renowned experts in science, history and literature. Similar to brilliant thinkers such as C.S. Lewis and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Strobel himself was an ardent skeptic prior to his personal search.
Still, after the proverbial bones of antiquity are dusted, the issue remains.
We see what we want. So the question is not only who is Jesus? It is, if the rough and earthy drama of the first Christmas is true, after 2,000 years, who is allowing it to have authority over their own hopes and dreams, their fears and losses, indeed, their very existence?
This holiday season, millions are doing so while singing Emmanuel, God with us.
It’s a reasonable song to sing, not because it sounds nice, but because, in the end, superstars don’t change lives.
Neither do dead men.