The Person of Jesus Part 1: Jesus’s Shadow over History

In my recent article introducing the person of Jesus, I made this claim:

“You don’t even have to think that the actual man Jesus existed, to see that the mere idea of him has dominated all other ideas, that his mere name has swallowed the names of all Caesars and Alexanders, that his mere shadow has conquered the world, covering the planet in light.”

In this first post in my series on the historicity and identity of Jesus, I’d like to flesh out this idea of his “historical shadow,” so to speak, for it is surely a shadow which has had more significance in human history than any other name, creed, movement, or empire. Again, this says nothing about his actual existence, or the historicity of the gospel narratives, or the truthfulness of Christianity; these things we shall be examining later in the series. Here I want simply to listen to the testimony of human history, to get an idea just of Jesus’s significance.

In an article on his blog, James Bishop quotes John Blanchard in referring to “the overwhelming legacy of Jesus,” and then lists several quick but insightful points which extrapolate on this legacy, such as just the simple fact that “He never wrote a book, yet more books have been written about him than about anyone else in history, and the output is still accelerating. The nearest thing we have to his biography has now been translated in whole or in part into over 2,000 languages” [1] (I highly recommend checking out the full post on Bishop’s blog).

The political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine, famous for his influential pamphlet Common Sense, was opposed to organized religion, including Christianity. And yet he had this to say about Jesus:

“He was a virtuous and amiable man. The morality that he preaches and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some Greek philosophers, many years before; by the Quakers since; and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any” [2].

The late prolific historian and scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, previously the Sterling Professor of History at Yale and a recipient of the Library of Congress’s prestigious John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences [3], wrote this:

“Regardless what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of supermagnet to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?” [4].

In an article in Newsweek, Kenneth Woodward writes:

“By any secular standard, Jesus is also the dominant figure of Western culture. Like the millennium itself, much of what we now think of as Western ideas, innovations, and values finds its source or inspiration in the religion that worships God in his name. Art and science, the self and society, politics and economics, marriage and family, right and wrong, body and soul–all have been touched and often radically transformed by Christian influence” [5].

One writer puts it thus:

“If one takes a historically objective approach to the question, it is found that even secular history affirms that Jesus lived on earth and that…He founded a church which has worshipped him for 1,900 years. He changed the course of the world’s history” (emphasis mine) [6].

Two writers in the nineteenth century wrote a book entitled What If Jesus Had Never Been Bornwhich sought to explore Jesus’s historical influence. In that book they compiled a list of things which the mere idea of Jesus has affected, which might not have happened or existed without him, including hospitals, universities, representative governments, civil liberties, the abolition of slavery, modern science, high regard for human life, great art, music, and literature, etc. [7]. They then conclude:

“Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on earth as much as that one solitary life” (emphasis mine) [8].

The famous writer, philosopher, and historian H. G. Wells, himself an atheist and a critic of Christianity had this to say about Jesus and his teachings:

“The doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was the main teaching of Jesus, is certainly one of the most revolutionary doctrines that ever stirred and changed human thought…For the doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus seems to have preached it, was no less than a bold and uncompromising demand for a complete change and cleansing of the life of our struggling race, an utter cleansing, without and within…Whatever else the deafness and blindness of his hearers may have missed in his utterances, it is plain they did not miss his resolve to revolutionize the world. The whole tenor of the opposition to him and the circumstances of his trial and execution show clearly that to his contemporaries he seemed to propose plainly, and did propose plainly, to change and fuse and enlarge all human life…He was like some terrible moral huntsman digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hitherto… Is it any wonder that men were dazzled and blinded and cried out against him? Even his disciples cried out when he would not spare them the light. Is it any wonder that the priests realized that between this man and themselves there was no choice but that he or priestcraft should perish? Is it any wonder that the Roman soldiers, confronted and amazed by something soaring over their comprehension and threatening all their disciplines, should take refuge in wild laughter, and crown him with thorns and robe him in purple and make a mock Cæsar of him? For to take him seriously was to enter upon a strange and alarming life, to abandon habits, to control instincts and impulses, to essay an incredible happiness” (emphasis mine) [9].

Wells is also quoted as making this startling admission:

“I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history” [10].

Fyodor Dostoevsky, arguably one of the greatest writers of all time, wrote this:

“Yet the whole [of Christianity] still stands steadfast before their [the critics] eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists…For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ of old” [11].

Historian and theologian Philip Schaff wrote:

“This Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; without science and learning, He shed more light on things human and divine than all philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of schools, He spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, He set more pens in motion, and furnished themes for  more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, works of art, and songs of praise, than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times” [12].

The historian Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote:

“As the centuries pass, the evidence is accumulating that, measured by His effect on history, Jesus is the most influential life ever lived on this planet” [13].

But why this massive historical legacy from one human being, or even just the idea of this one human being? What exactly is it about him that has drawn in so many billions of people over the past two thousand years and so radically impacted the world?

The issue of the historicity of the Gospels is highly debated, and is an issue which I will be taking a look at in this series. But whether or not the Gospel narratives are true, they present us with the portrait of a startling and overwhelming person, and this portrait, as well as that community and organization which has continued to hold and reveal that portrait to the world is, I contend, precisely the reason for Jesus’s shadow over history. A quote from the Scottish theologian James Stewart helps us get a sense of this portrait:

“He was the meekest and lowliest of all the sons of men, yet he spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that evil spirits and demons cried out in terror at his coming, yet he was so genial and winsome and approachable that the children loved to play with him, and the little ones nestled in his arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding was like the presence of sunshine. No one was half so compassionate to sinners, yet no one ever spoke such red hot scorching words about sin. A bruised reed he would not break, his whole life was love, yet on one occasion he demanded of the Pharisees how they ever expected to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, yet for sheer stark realism He has all of our stark realists soundly beaten. He was a servant of all, washing the disciples feet, yet masterfully He strode into the temple, and the hucksters and moneychangers fell over one another to get away from the mad rush and the fire they saw blazing in His eyes. He saved others, yet at the last Himself He did not save. There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts which confronts us in the gospels. The mystery of Jesus is the mystery of divine personality” [14].

 

What is this divine personality? Napoleon Bonaparte, himself one of the largest figures in western history, stated:

“I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religions the distance of infinity…Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and His will confounds me. Between Him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible term of comparison. He is truly a being by Himself. His ideas and sentiments, the truth which He announces, His manner of convincing, are not explained either by human organization or by the nature of things…The nearer I approach, the more carefully I examine, everything is above me–everything remains grand, of a grandeur which overpowers. His religions is revelation from an intelligence which certainly is not that of man…One can absolutely find nowhere, but in Him alone, the imitation or the example of His life…I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ, or anything which can approach the gospel. Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature, offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or to explain it. Here everything is extraordinary” [15].

Albert Einstein, one of the most brilliant minds in human history, in an interview for The Saturday Evening Post, said:

“As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene….Jesus is too colossal for the pen of phrasemongers, however artful…Unquestionably [I accept the historical existence of Jesus]. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus…No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he” [16].

French philosopher and deist Jacques Rousseau observed:

“When Plato describes his imaginary righteous man, loaded with all the punishments of guilt, yet meriting the highest rewards of virtue, he describes exactly the character of Jesus Christ” [17].

Celebrated poet Ralph Waldo Emerson commented:

“Jesus is the most perfect of all men that have yet appeared” [18].

Nineteenth century historian William Lecky, in his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, declared that Jesus

“has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive to its practice” [19].

David Strauss, who was “the bitterest of all opponents of the supernatural elements of the Gospels,” [20], admitted that

“This Christ…is historical, not mythical; is an individual, no mere symbol…He remains the highest model of religion within the reach of our thought” [ibid].

Twentieth century theologian Bernard Ramm wrote:

“Jesus Christ…is the greatest personality that ever lived…and therefore His personal impact is the greatest of any man that ever lived” [21].

Historian Philip Schaff quotes and discusses the view of Johann Wolfgang Goethe:

“Goethe…another commanding genius, of very different character, but equally above suspicion of partiality for religion, looking in the last years of his life over the vast field of history, was constrained to confess that ‘if ever the Divine appeared on earth, it was in the Person of Christ,’ and that ‘the human mind, no matter how far it may advance in every other department, will never transcend the height and moral culture of Christianity as it shines and glows in the Gospels'” [22].

Ernest Renan, a philosopher, linguist, and historian, wrote:

“Whatever may be the surprises of the future, Jesus will never be surpassed” [23].

And finally, Thomas Carlyle, another philosopher and historian, said of Jesus that he is:

“our divinest symbol. Higher has the human thought not yet reached. A symbol of quite perennial, infinite character; whose significance will ever demand to be anew inquired into, and anew made manifest” [24].

 

So what is the point of all that, of taking that survey of the testimony of human history, and this just a small sampling of all the possible quotes, from critics and skeptics as well as followers? Simply to reiterate what I asserted in my previous article, that Jesus is the heart of human history; and thus, if we are going to discern what it means to be human, we most surely examine this most unique human individual.

In my next post I will actually begin to delve into the historical inquiry, laying out the questions and methods which I will be using. I will, as I said, be looking at issues such as the historicity of the gospels and new testament in general, as well as the resurrection; but my primary focus is to come to some historical conclusion about the identity of Jesus. This man, whose shadow towers over history, who is undeniably the most crucial and influential human who’s ever lived…who is this man?

 

Sources

Sources for quotations above, in the order and number in which they appear:

  1. Bishop, James. “Blanchard on the ‘Overwhelming Legacy of Jesus.'” James Bishop’s Theology & Apologetics. WordPress.com, 21 Jun. 2016. Web. 28 Jun. 2016. <https://jamesbishopblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/blanchard-on-the-overwhelming-legacy-of-jesus/>.
  2. Paine, Thomas. Collected Writings. Ed. by Eric Foner. New York: The Library of America, 1995. Page 9. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 119.
  3. Noll, Mark A. “The Doctrine Doctor.” Christianity Today. Christianity Today, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 28 Jun. 2016. <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/decemberweb-only/12-27-42.0.html>.
  4. Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Page 1. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 136.
  5. Woodward, Kenneth L. “2000 Years of Jesus,” Newsweek. March 29, 1999. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 136.
  6. Robinson, William Childs. Our Lord. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1937. Page 29. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 138.
  7. The list is given in McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 156.
  8. Kennedy, D. James and Jerry Newcombe. What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994. Page 7-8. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 157.
  9.  Wells, H. G. A Short History of the World. New York: The Macmillan company, 1922; Bartleby.com, 2000. www.bartleby.com/86/.
  10. Quoted here: <http://www.apologetics315.com/2013/06/hg-wells-on-historicity-of-jesus.html>.
  11. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. 1879-1880. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. Page 162.
  12. Philip Schaff, The Person of Christ (New York: American Tract Society, 1913), 33. Quote found here: <https://cafn.us/2011/07/09/saturday-quote-philip-schaff-on-jesus-lasting-and-universal-influence/>.
  13. Latourette, Kenneth Scott. American Historical Review 54, January 1949. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 321.
  14. I cannot find the original source of this quote. It has been quoted in various books and articles. See here: <http://truthbomb.blogspot.com/2009/07/scottish-theologian-james-stewart-on.html>.
  15. Grounds, Vernon C. The Reason for Our Hope. Chicago: Moody Press, 1945. Page 37. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 161.
  16.  Comes from “What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck,”The Saturday Evening Post, Oct. 26, 1929, p. 17. The portion of the interview from which this quote comes, as well as comments about its authenticity, can be found here: <http://www.einsteinandreligion.com/einsteinonjesus.html>.
  17. Schaff, Philip. The Person of Christ. New York: American Tract Society, 1913. Page 134. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 312.
  18. Mead, Frank, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religious Quotations. Westwood, Ill.: Flemming H. Revell, n.d. Page 52. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 312.
  19. Lecky, William Edward Hatpole. History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1903. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 312.
  20. Smith, Wilbur M. Have You Considered Him? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970. Page 11. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 312.
  21. Ballard, Frank. The Miracles of Unbelief. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1908. Page 173. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 318.
  22.  Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962. Page 110. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 318.
  23. Ross, G. A. Johnston. The Universality of Jesus. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1906. Page 146. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 318.
  24.  Schaff, Philip. The Person of Christ. New York: American Tract Society, 1913. Page 139. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. Print. Page 318.

Image credits: FreeImages.com/Bráulio Campos (http://www.freeimages.com/photo/jesus-1480847)

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8 thoughts on “The Person of Jesus Part 1: Jesus’s Shadow over History

  1. I don’t see the biblical Jesus as an exemplar. He was self-righteous, angry, never laughed, and was a failed prophet. He was a man of and for his time (if he existed) and has inspired as much hatred and crimes against humanity as goodness.

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    • I think I can understand some of the sentiment behind what you’re saying. Certainly, on just a superficial reading of the Gospels, Jesus appears to be odd, if nothing else. He is definitely angry at times, some of his comments sound judgmental and harsh, or even derogatory (he even refers to a woman as a “dog” simply because she’s not a Jew in Mark 7:27). It’s true that Jesus in the gospels is never explicitly depicted as laughing, and he always seems to be somewhat serious and purposeful. He is depicted, after all, as the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” But I think the gospel writers also believed him to be a man of joy: he goes to feats and weddings, and his very first miracle was to turn several huge jars of water into wine. His critics actually accused him of being “a drunkard and a glutton,” which is paramount to calling him a “partyer.” As for self righteous, again I think I can understand what might lead one to see that in his portrayal. He judges, he claims to be able to forgive people’s sins, and he basically says that the fate of everyone’s eternal souls is dependent upon him. And yet at the same time, Jesus is pretty universally regarded as the supreme example of humility in world history. He associated with women and gentiles, which, in that day, was absolutely unheard of for a religious male teacher. He ate with prostitues and sinners, which was scandalous. He “let the little children come to him,” which was, again, almost like social suicide. He knelt down on his knees to wash his disciples feet, which was a job considered even too low for servants to do. In my view, the portrait of Jesus taken as a whole exhibits the “union of contrasts…the mystery of divine personality” from the James Stewart quote above. The whole point of me listing all these quotes was to show that extraordinary significance and impact that the person of Jesus has had. If people like Einstein, Napoleon, Thomas Paine, Mahatma Ghandi, if some of the greatest historians and thinkers of all time, many of them critics of religion, have looked upon this one man in awe and such respect, then this man surely warrants a closer and deeper examination. I completely agree that Jesus was a man of and for his time. But, as I said, he is also the most influential man in world history, and even today several billion people claim to follow him and worship him; so obviously there is something about him which has transcended his own time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good respnse, and well said.
        The Wells’ quote was my favorite of your article. One could spend considerable thought and discussion on what he said.
        Thanks for your work.

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