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Historical Controversies about Jesus

Anyone famous is bound to attract a lot of attention. Stretch that attention out for 2,000 years, and you have that much more room for doctrines to develop and controversies to get cooked up. Take a look at some of the more persistent controversial questions about Jesus, the man from Nazareth.

Did Jesus exist?

No one seriously doubted whether Jesus existed until the extreme skeptics of the Enlightenment era in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taking their cue from the budding recognition that the gospels were faith statements rather than documentaries, these folks began to argue that the gospels were outright fabrications.

However, this theory isn't very plausible for a few reasons, including these:

  • The degree of detail in the gospels and the surprising variation between them argues for rather than against Jesus's existence. In other words, if you're trying to perpetrate a fraud, you'd make sure to get your story straight first instead of shooting yourself in the foot with stories that contradict and confuse.
  • In addition to the insider accounts, Jewish and Roman records are available that mention this man, and they all date to the first century after Jesus's death.
  • It's tough to explain the rise of Christianity and the willingness of those first followers to die for a story they had cooked up.

At the end of the day, more evidence points to Jesus's existence than away from it.

Does archaeology back up the existence of Jesus?

There have been many artifacts and relics associated with Jesus over the centuries — such as relics from his body (foreskin, umbilical cord), items from his crucifixion (fragments of the true cross or the crown of thorns), "true images" of his face or body, and inscriptions naming his contemporaries (Pontius Pilate, the High Priest Caiaphas, or Jesus's brother James).

Most of these relics first appear 300 to 1,300 years after Jesus's death, raising the obvious question of where they were in the meantime. Only the Pilate inscription and the Caiaphas ossuary have been found to be early, legitimate artifacts.

Was Jesus human?

As the belief in Jesus's divinity grew, some people couldn't imagine that he had ever really been human. In fact, it took Christians 450 years to sort that one out, and there are still differences in belief about it today. But almost all Christian churches say that Jesus was and is human and divine and that neither "nature" compromises the other.

Are the gospels reliable?

Christians answer the question of the gospels' reliability differently, depending on how they view scripture. If they view the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God, they may be more inclined to view its historical claims as reliable. If they view the Bible as an inspired text written by human authors, on the other hand, they may be more inclined to test the reliability of the gospels' historical claims against archaeological and literary evidence from the time using the rules of judging history.

Was Jesus Jewish or Christian?

Jesus was Jewish. His teaching, his healing activity, and even his prophetic challenges to tradition place him squarely within the first-century Jewish world. There were no Christians during his lifetime. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest followers of Jesus in Judea and in the Galilee called themselves "Nazoreans" or "The Way" (Acts 24:5, 14). These followers weren't called "Christians" until they became more of a presence in the Greek-speaking cities, such as Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:26), well after Jesus's death.

Who was Jesus's father?

One of the earliest smears against Christians was that Jesus was a bastard. It pops up in the writings of the second-century Roman philosopher Celsus and in the Babylonian Talmud compiled by the Jews in seventh-century Iraq. These books are far too late to count as historical. Rather, they represent a kind of counterthrust to long-standing Christian claims of Jesus's virginal conception (Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–38).

The matter can't be settled by historians one way or the other because it can't be demonstrated from evidence. The virginal conception of Jesus is a faith statement that tries to communicate in first-century terms the belief that God had a direct hand in Jesus's existence and that Jesus is from God in a unique way.

Was Jesus married?

It appears that Jesus was neither a husband nor a father. There's simply no evidence in any early Christian, Jewish, or Roman text that says he married or had children. It wouldn't challenge the Christian creed if he had, though (despite what Nikos Kazantzakis thought in The Last Temptation of Christ and what Dan Brown wrote in The Da Vinci Code). After all, the Christian belief that God became human in Jesus is much more startling and fundamental than saying that, after becoming human, he married and had kids.

What did Jesus look like?

I'm sure everybody has their own idea of what Jesus looked like when he walked the earth. But there are no early portraits or descriptions. That means that you have to argue from analogy, gathering evidence from contemporary skeletons, art, and literary descriptions about what other Palestinian Jews generally looked like. On the basis of analogy, experts believe that Jesus was probably short in stature, stocky, and dark skinned, and he likely had dark, curly black hair and a dark beard.

Western conventions of portraying Jesus as tall, slender, and muscular, with delicate facial features and fair skin and hair, say more about Western ideals than about what he really may have looked like. It's the perennial issue in traditions about Jesus: The image we have of him is often our own.

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