Many Christians have been dismayed to read the reports of Christian scholars, including some within the Uniting Church, who argue against the traditional understanding we have of the nature and person of Jesus Christ. These scholars do not realise that Jesus is not just a person in history whose merit we can dispassionately discuss, but is a friend who has made all the difference to our lives.
Likewise, many non-believers, considering the claims of Jesus upon their lives, are confused by the scholars' comments. They want all that Jesus offers, but these scholars create confusion, doubt and scepticism. It is because of these concerned Christians and confused inquirers that we confront the scholars' claims and with the best intellectual arguments of which we are capable make defence of our faith. Peter said 1 Peter 3:15 "In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." Jude wrote: Jude 1:3 "Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints."
We give the reasons for the hope we hold and contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. The present controversy has to do with the new discoveries about Jesus of Nazareth.
1. NAZARETH. It is important to know the home of Jesus. Today, Nazareth, on the West Bank area of Israel, is still small with only 20,000 Christian and Islamic Palestinians.
It is important, as the American scholar Ben Witherington III, in his book, "The Jesus Quest" (p15) says "to understand the Galilean it is crucial to understand the context of Galilee." It was to Nazareth the parents of Jesus returned after their temporary stay in Egypt to escape the murder of the infants of Bethlehem by the mad King Herod. Matt 2:22-23 "But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." (See Matt 26:71; Luke 18:37)
Nazareth was a very small village, so small in fact that when Josephus was the regional military commander, he did not include it on his list of towns and important villages in Galilee. It sits upon a hilltop, having panoramic views, 1,300 feet above sea level. Apart from the New Testament, the earliest Jewish reference was in the 7th Century A.D..
But Franciscan Archaeologists in the 1950's, unearthed wells, granaries and olive presses from the first century, confirming Nazareth was a rural village. Many of the teachings of Jesus have rural and agricultural details (Luke 13, Matt 16). He spoke about the weeds and the wheat growing together, about the wild-flowers in the fields, about separating the wheat and the chaff, sowing the seed and harvesting it, and of fig trees and olives. The scenes of rural life were all about Him. The great Jewish historian, Josephus, described the area as "excellent for crops or cattle and rich in forests of every kind."
However, just three miles away was the ancient capital of Galilee: Sepphoris birth-place of Mary. This city was second only to Jerusalem. Yet not once is it mentioned that Jesus visited here or Tiberias, Herod's winter resort on Lake Galilee. Sepphoris is not mentioned in the New Testament, but archaeologists from Florida have revealed rich and beautiful remains, of white limestone and pink marble. Here was an acropolis, a street decorated by columns on both sides, shops and public buildings, a forum, pools, fountains, public baths, a royal palace, and a 4000 seat theatre.
In many way Sepphoris was like Jerusalem. James H. Charlesworth writes: "Jerusalem was a major city in a cosmopolitan culture. It contained not only the Temple, but also a hippodrome for chariot and horse races, a stadium for athletic contests, a gymnasium, and massive theatres. Herod was an athlete, built gymnasiums, and even once attended the Olympic Games. The massive arenas for athletic contests in Jerusalem and similar structures discovered in Galilee (at Magdala and Tiberias) indicate that at least some Jews were very fond of Greek sports." p105 "Jesus Within Judaism."
But all this Roman and pagan construction and way of life, was despised by holy Jewish families living in the village of Nazareth. On several occasions the Jewish occupants of the Galilean villages, poor people ground down by the wealthy land-lords who lived the city, sacked and looted Sepphoris. Philip Yancey, the American author says: "Galilee had a reputation as a breeding ground for revolutionaries. In 4 BC, around the time of Jesus' birth, a rebel broke into the arsenal in Sepphoris.
He looted it to arm his followers. Roman troops recaptured and burned the town, crucifying two thousand Jews who had participated in the uprising. Ten years later another rebel, named Judas, incited a revolt, urging his countrymen to pay no taxes to the pagan Roman emperor. Two of Judas's sons would be crucified after Jesus' death, and his last son would ultimately capture the stronghold of Masada from the Romans, vowing to defend it until every last Jew had died. In the end, 960 Jewish men, women, and children took their own lives rather than fall captive to the Romans. Galileans were freedom-lovers to the core.
For all its prosperity and political activism, Galilee got little respect from the rest of the country. It was the farthest province from Jerusalem and the most backward culturally. Rabbinic literature of the time portrays Galileans as bumpkins, fodder for ethnic jokes. Galileans who learned Hebrew pronounced it so crudely that they were not called on to read the Torah in other synagogues. Speaking the common language of Aramaic in a slipshod way was a telltale sign of Galilean roots (as Simon Peter would one day find out, betrayed in a courtyard by his accent). The Aramaic words preserved in the Gospels show that Jesus spoke in that northern dialect, no doubt encouraging scepticism about him. "How can the Christ come from Galilee?" "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" "The Jesus I Never Knew." p60.
It was from this small, rural village that Jesus came. It even rejected Him (luke 4:16-30). His early life means He understands us, our rejection, our hurts, poverty and being oppressed.
2. THE JEW OF NAZARETH. It is also important to remember that Jesus was a Jew from Nazareth. Only once was Jesus called a Jew, and that was by a Samaritan woman who wanted to distinguish herself from Him. John 4:7-9 "When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Dr James H Charlesworth, has said "I am convinced that the new discoveries, sensitivities, and methods compel us to strive to see Jesus within his contemporary Jewish environment. .. Jesus of Nazareth as a historical man must be seen within Judaism." ("Jesus Within Judaism" pxi)
Gregory A. Boyd agrees with Charlesworth: "There is, among most scholars within the "Third Quest," an emphasis on seeing Jesus as a Jew, and thus on understanding him within the context of first-century Judaism." ("Cynic Sage or Son Of God"). This seems a self-evident fact. But for centuries, artists and writers have seen Jesus as an image of themselves. Great Italian artists and sculptors like Michelangelo made Jesus look Italian. American painters like Louis Salman give him blue eyes and blonde hair. The British artist Holman Hunt, painted Jesus standing holding a lamp outside the door of an English cottage, making Jesus like any of a dozen English kings. The Australian, Henry Beecroft, painted Jesus with wavy brown hair and brown eyes, very much like some of the men who attended his Congregational church in Pitt Street, Sydney.
None of these pictures had Semitic features, with black hair and beard and dark eyes. The distinguished New Testament scholar at Yale, Nils Dahl, argued that "we must view Jesus within the context of Palestinian Judaism. Everything which enlarges our knowledge of this environment of Jesus indirectly extends our knowledge of the historical Jesus himself." So archaeology helps us understand the society in which Jesus grew and ministered.
3. THE THIRD QUEST FOR THE JEW OF NAZARETH. The debate is referred to as "The Third Quest For the Historical Jesus." The first quest covered 19th C. historical and textual criticism of the scriptures. It was summed up by Dr Albert Schweitzer's book of that name in 1906. The second quest for the historical Jesus in the 1950-60's followed German theologians influenced by Rudolf Bultmann, such as Ernst Kasemann, Gunther Bornkamm and the American James Robinson who wrote "A New Quest For the Historical Jesus" (SCM 1959), demonstrating the probability of what Jesus did and said. Bornkamm's "Jesus of Nazareth" pointed strongly to the earthly Jesus. They broke open renewed interest in finding Jesus as an authenticated historical person.
From the 1980's, new archaeological and historical discoveries, new manuscripts and a better understanding of Judaism in the time of Jesus, set scholars on what the British scholar N.T.Wright called the "third quest for the historical Jesus", seeking to understand Him in the light of His times. Many discoveries have led scholars to see Jesus within the vibrant times of the Second Temple Judaism, the beliefs that existed during the time Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple.
This is of great comfort for many Christians who have seen the Lord they love made the subject of ludicrous imaginings by scholars such as Barbara Theiring of Sydney. Scholars like Gregory A Boyd, have described her writings as "fantastically speculative" but local television and tabloid newspapers have written up her writings as truth.
There is also great challenge for believers to understand all they can about the life and times of Jesus. Now we have scholarship and discovery that has ended forever questions we all have faced such as "How can you prove your Jesus Christ ever lived?" The Jewish scholar Gaalyah Cornfeld, in "The Historical Jesus" (p11-12), declares, "Modern archaeology and scholarship have now established beyond doubt that a man known as Jesus certainly did exist in history and that the criticism of the sceptics was ill founded." Scholarship has proved His existence.
What is needed of every believer is a great commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The constant attacks of post-modernist and humanist secularists has dinted the confidence of many Christians, and made seekers hold back. But the third quest for the historical Jesus can give confidence both to those who believe and those who are still seeking. Jesus Christ is Lord - and not all the attacks of sceptics can change that fact. Every Christian can grow in confidence and commitment to Him as Lord and Saviour! The more we know, the more certain we become! That is why in confidence and certainty I can call you to commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God who gives purpose and meaning to your life, who forgives you of your sin, and makes all the difference to how you can live.
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
"THE JESUS QUEST" Ben Witherington 111, IVP 1995
"THE JESUS I NEVER KNEW" Phillip Yancey, Zond, 1995
"JESUS: THE EVIDENCE" Ian Wilson, Weiden. 1996
"JESUS WITHIN JUDAISM" J H Charlesworth, SPCK 1988.
"CYNIC SAGE OR SON OF GOD" Gregory A Boyd Victor 1995
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