My Quest for the Historical Jesus

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 4, 1999

Easter Sunday is a good time to remember that Christianity is based on history. The Christian faith is not a list of moral principles or a set of theological ideas, it is the true story of what God has actually done in this world to save his people.

At the heart of Christianity are two historical events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth: his crucifixion on a hill outside Jerusalem in or around the year 30 A.D., and his resurrection from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea three days later.

A few weeks ago I went on a quest for the historical Jesus. My quest began at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Last fall the museum opened a new permanent gallery called “Canaan and Ancient Israel.” It is a great place to get a sense of biblical history, despite the fact that the tour guides insist on looking at things from a “strictly archaeological point of view.” In other words, they are not very interested in seeing connections with the Bible.

The 500 artifacts in the exhibit, however, do come from the world of the Bible. Visitors can see a clay drinking bowl like the one Amos had in mind when he accused God’s people of drinking wine by the bowlful (Amos 6:6). There are weights and measures to remind visitors of the Levitical law: Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights… . I am the LORD your God (Lev. 19:35-36).

There is a signet ring, like the one Solomon handed his lover when he said, “Place me like a seal over your heart… for love is as strong as death (Songs 8:6). There is an axhead, like the one Elisha miraculously raised from the Jordan River (2 Kgs. 6:1-7). There is a small potter’s wheel, like the one Jeremiah saw when he went to the potter’s house and learned about the sovereignty of God (Jer. 18–19). There is even a reconstruction of a small house to show weaving, bread-making, and other activities from daily life in Bible times.

The Penn Museum also has plenty of reminders that God’s people have always been tempted to worship idols. The exhibit includes a couple dozen religious figurines found in ancient Israel. Some are gods from Egypt, like the cobra, the falcon, and the baboon. The rest are mostly sex goddesses, like Anat and Astarte (see Jgs. 3:7). There are also vessels which were used to burn incense to the gods of Canaan.

By the time I had finished studying the exhibit, I had seen enough artifacts to take me back to the world of the Bible. But I did not find Jesus in the “Canaan and Ancient Israel” gallery at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

So I went to a meeting of specialists in biblical archaeology. Their topic was “Searching for Jesus,” and there some light was actually shed on Jesus’ story. We learned, for example, that two additional graves have been discovered underneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This shows that the traditional site for Jesus’ tomb was indeed outside the city walls.

But we also heard a great deal of speculation about Jesus which had little basis in the ancient texts. Some scholars told us, for example, that Jesus was a peasant revolutionary who organized a grass-roots movement to resist Rome. Others struggled to explain why Jesus was able to start a major religion when so many other Messianic figures failed. Of course, if one does not believe in the resurrection, then there is no good explanation for this. At the end of it all I was reminded of Mary’s words in the garden: “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him” (John 20:13).

Where, then, should we look for Jesus? If we cannot find him in the archaeological remains or at scholarly conferences, where can we find him?

Some Christians say you can find him in your heart. “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.” It is true that Christ lives in the heart of the Christian. By itself, however, my inward faith does not establish a solid basis for salvation. Nor does it provide me with a gospel to share with anyone else. I can hardly invite my neighbor over to look inside my heart!

That is why, if we are going to find Jesus, our quest inevitably takes us back to his Word. It is in the books of the Bible that we find the Jesus of history. The biblical books are by far the best-attested documents from the ancient world. They make straightforward historical claims about Jesus, based on the testimony of reliable witnesses. What those witnesses say is that the Son of God, also called Jesus Christ, is the Savior of the world who died and rose again.

I close, therefore, with a record of the facts, as reported by Paul of Tarsus, and recorded in the Bible:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved… . For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time… . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also… . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still dead in your sins… . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-2a, 3-6a, 7, 17, 21a).

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