LIFE OF CHRIST - Who Is Jesus and How Do We know?
Session 1

All of the class notes were written and prepared by Gregory Koukl. Mr. Koukl is the founder and President of the organization "Stand to Reason". You will find further information about Mr. Koukl at the end of this lesson.

I. Introduction
A. The volume of material here may seem overwhelming. Don't let that scare you. These extended notes are given as a resource to make your own study and learning more productive. Take it at your own speed. We try to set a full table; you eat what you like.

B. We will field questions on e-mail.

C. Each one teach one.
    1. Read each session's notes again at least once through as a review.
    2.Tell someone else, in as much detail as you can, what you're learning and significance the teaching has had for you.

D.To obtain a certificate for the class, you are required to write a ½ page summary for each session. Simply click on the e-mail address and send your report.

II. Goal of the class: who is Jesus, and why did He come?
Almost everyone has an opinion about Jesus:

A. Christian cults:1
    1. Jehovah's Witnesses:2
        The first creation of God, Michael the archangel in the flesh, Jesus was raised not in the flesh but as a mighty, immortal spirit.
        A spirit child of Elohim and twin spirit brother to Lucifer, Jesus attained divinity his intelligence, devotion and obedience.
    3. Christian Scientists:
        "Jesus is the human man and Christ is the divine idea" (Science and Health,473:15-16). Not that the human Jesus was or is eternal.. not one with the Father... but fleshly... Christ is "the Ideal Truth," "Divine Idea," "reflection of God"(SH, 334:10-20).

B. New Agers:
    An ascended master, a guru, an enlightened one of many, Jesus shows the way we can all experience our innate divinity.

C. Humanists:
    Jesus was the fully actualized human being, perfectly exemplifying love, acceptance and the "golden rule."

D. Historical Christianity:
    Jesus was the singular and unique incarnation of God, who died to pay the debt of sin for mankind, the only way to salvation. To answer this question we have to go back to the only source of information we have about Jesus: history.

III Jesus as an historical figure. There are two reasons why it's vital we understand Jesus of Nazareth from an historical perspective.

A. History separates Jesus from other mythical characters.

B An historical, flesh and blood Jesus who lived and died and rose from the dead the necessary foundation of Christianity.3
    1. The Christian faith is founded on a person not a teaching (as in other religions).4
    2. Jesus drew attention to Himself (Who'd people say that the Son of Man is?" Matt. 1:15~), not His teaching.
    3. The decision you make about His identity (not His teaching) will determine, according to Jesus, where you will spend eternity, John 8:24

There are two categories of information from history that we have about Jesus. We will make use of the best historical sources we have available to us about Him, being especially alert and sensitive to cultural context:

C. Non-biblical sources:
        a. Tacitus (Annals) - 110 A.D. This Roman historian writes of Jesus being, "the author of this name [Christians] was Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, was brought to punishment by Pontius Pilate the procurator" (Tacit. Annal. 15:44).
        b. Pliny the Younger - 62-113? A.D. In a correspondence with the emperor Trajan, Pliny noted that Christians met regularly and sang hymns "to Christ as if to a god" (Letters 10:96.7).
        c. Josephus - 37-95? A.D. Jewish historian of the late 1st century.

1) "Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works,--a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again after the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day" (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18:63-64. (The accuracy of some of this text is contested).
2) Josephus also makes reference to John the Baptist, and James the brother of Jesus, who was executed by the Jewish leaders.
        d. Completing the list are short references from Julius Africanus (quoting
        e. Thallus) and Seutonius (Blomberg, pp. 196-7)7
    2. Significance:
        None of the early historians have much to say about Jesus. However, they establish Jesus as an historical person and confirm some of the events of His life.
        Though limited in detail, these references mesh perfectly with the more extensive accounts we find in the only other historical source of information we have, the Gospels. The secular sources give us corroboration, not content.
    3. Why such sparse references?
        Today we live in a "global village" where every noteworthy event is communicated and cataloged. These events, however, took place on the obscure fringe of the Roman Empire at a time when "secular" interest in recorded history was minimal by comparison.
        What should surprise is not how little we have but, under those conditions, how much detail we actually have when we consider the next source of historical information we have about Jesus.

    4. Summary:8
        a.Jesus was executed in Judea during the period when Tiberius was Emporer (AD14-37) and Pontius Pilate was Governor (AD26-36)--Tacitus
        b. The movement spread from Judea to Rome--Tacitus
        c. Jesus claimed to be God and would depart and return--Eliezer
        d. His followers worshipped Him as (a) god.--Pliny
        e. He was called the "Christ."--Josephus
        f. His followers were called "Christians. "--Tacitus, Pliny
        g. It was a world-wide movement.--Eliezer
        h. His brother was named James.--Josephus

D. Biblical: the Gospels.9
    The Gospels are thematic accounts of Jesus' life, similar to biographies, in four different styles, from four different perspectives, by four different men. God has given unique presentations, graciously tailored to specific groups of people, so everyone might understand the gospel and receive it. This demonstrates God's sensitivity to cultural differences.

    The gospels are the only documents we possess that give us detailed information about Christ. Everything we know about Him comes from this source. if you disregard what the Bible says about Jesus, you don't even have a Jesus to have an opinion about. Our goal is to let these primary source documents speak for themselves.

    1. Gospel of Matthew
        a. About the author:
            1) The unanimous tradition of the Church (i.e. the writings of the early church leaders) supports Matthew Levi, one of the twelve Apostles, as author (JSBE vol. 3, p. 287). He writes as an eyewitness to the events.
            2) Matthew started out as a tax collector (a publican, cf. Luke 5:27), hated by Jews as an extortionist.
        b. Content:
            1) Written to Jewish audience, with abundant Old Testament references (over 60 quotations) showing prophetic fulfillment in Jesus.10 Matthew goes out of his way to show the indisputable connection between Christianity and the Old Testament.
            2) Emphasizes Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and King. To a lesser extent, both directly and indirectly, Matthew also identifies Jesus as the Son of God, a title of deity.
        c. Date: around7OA.D.11
        d. Memorable passages: the visit of the Magi (ch. 2), the temptation of Jesus (4), the beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount (5-7), the death of John the Baptist (14), Jesus walks on water (14), the greatest commandment (22), the seven woes (23), the Olivet Discourse (24), the judgement of sheep and goats (25), and the GreatCommission (28)

    2. Gospel of Mark
        a. About the author:
            1) Also known as John Mark, a companion of the apostles. His mother was an early believer. Peter came to their home after his miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12: 12ff). He accompanied Paul and Barnabas, his cousin (Col. 4:10), on a mission trip to Cyprus (Acts 13:5) but later turned back (13:13).
            2) The church fathers (Iranaeus, Papias, Origen) identify John Mark as Peter's disciple and interpreter. Much of the content, therefore, is dependent on Peter (Unger, p. 696). This gospel therefore records what actually is the eyewitness account of Peter (see 2 Peter 1:16) as well as the incidental, first-hand witnessof John Mark, who probably was just a lad during Jesus' ministry.
        b. Content:
            1) Written to Roman audience. Includes explanations of Jewish customs and expressions.
            2) Emphasizes Jesus as servant and redeemer.
            3) Emphasizes the deeds of Christ Mark is the gospel of action, of deeds rather than words (note the frequent use of the word "immediately"), and has little emotional content. As was the custom of the day, the arrangement is often topical and does not follow strict chronological order (Guthrie, p. 58).
        c. Date: 55-70 A.D. Many believe that Mark was the first gospel written, upon which Matthew and Luke rely heavily for content
        d. Memorable passages: the paralytic is healed (ch. 2), the appointment of the Apostles (3), the Gerasene demoniac (5), the transfiguration (9), blind Bartemaeus cured (10), the widow's mite (12), and the Ascension (16).

    3. Gospel of Luke
        a. About the author:
            1) A Greek (Gentile) physician and traveling companion of Paul and included in the narrative of portions of the book of Acts (note the use of "we", 16:10-11, 20:6-21:18, etc.).
            2) As a master historian held in high esteem by today's historians12 (ISBE, vol. 3, p. 183), Luke "investigated everything carefully from the beginning" so he could write an orderly account (1:3-4). Therefore, he was not an eyewitness to the events themselves. This gospel is very detailed, the longest book in the New Testament.
            3) Luke also wrote the book of Acts as a companion, or sequel, to this gospel (Acts 1:1-2).
        b. Content:
            1) Written in a polished, literary style that would appeal to the educated Greek (note the flourish of 1:1-4). Luke is full of superb stories, giving the reader a very personal glimpse of the life of Jesus.
            2) Emphasizes the perfect humanity of Jesus, the Son of Man. Luke 19:10 is commonly taken as the key verse: "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Unger, p. 670).
            3) Luke also stresses the role of the Holy Spirit more than the others.
        c. Date: 55-60 A.D.
        d. Memorable passages: the birth of John the Baptist (ch. 1), the Song of Mary (1), the "Christmas Story" (2), Jesus preaches in Nazareth (4), the great catch of fish (5), the raising of Jairus' daughter (8), the seventy sent out (10), the Lord's prayer (11), the faithful steward (12), the prodigal son (15), and the encounter on the road to Emmaus (24).

    4. Gospel of John13
        a. About the author:
            1) Personal companion of Jesus; the "disciple who Jesus loved." Probably the unnamed disciple in John 1:35-40.
            2) An eyewitness to the details of Jesus' life.
                aa. John 2 1:24 "This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true."
                bb. 1 John 1:1&3 "What was from the beginning, what we have seen with oi.~r eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life.. . What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also."
        b. Content:
            1) Written with all men in mind, in an uncomplicated style, focusing on the significance of Jesus' teaching as opposed to the events of Jesus' life (as in the Synoptics). Note the unique prologue (John 1:1-18) that serves almost as an outline, an introduction to the rich themes of the gospel.
            2) Emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God (deity) and salvation by faith.
            3) Emphasizes the last few weeks of Jesus' life (chapters 11-21), His Passion.
            4) Purpose: to lead people to faith in Jesus. John 20:3 1: "These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and in believing you may have life in His name."
        c. Date: 90 A.D., though some date it as early as 60 A.D.14,15
        d. Memorable passages: the first disciples (ch. 1), the wedding at Cana (2), Nicodemus and being born again" (3), the Samaritan woman at the well (4), the Bread of Life Discourse (6), the woman taken in adultery (8), "Before Abraham was, I am" (8), the Good Shepherd (10), Lazarus raised (11), Jesus washes the disciple's feet (13), the Upper Room Discourse (14-16), the Great High Priestly Prayer (17), and the recomnussioning of Peter (21).

E. Did Jesus study in India for the "missing" 18 years of His life and then bring back a message reflecting eastern religious thought?
    1. There is no historical information what-so-ever that places Jesus in India.
        Most "documentation" comes from psychic messages (e.g. The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ and the readings of Edgar Cayce) and they conflict with each other. The only evidence that even claims to be historical was supposedly viewed by Nicolas Notovich in 1887 in a monastery in Tibet. The alleged scrolls about the prophet Issa have never been produced and the monks who were supposed to have them denied any knowledge of either the scrolls or Notovich.
    2. The Gospels teach Jesus stayed in Israel.
        a. Our best historical accounts strongly imply that Jesus stayed with his family the entire time He grew up, as would be expected of a young Jewish lad. Matt 2:23 "...and He came and resided in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene"
            Luke 2:51-52 "And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."
        b. Both of these accounts are immediately followed by the account of John the Baptist, implying Jesus' baptism was the next significant event in Jesus' life. If Jesus had traveled to the East it would have been a critical theological event and would not have been left out of the historical record. Jesus' earlier trip to Egypt as an infant (Man 2:13-15) was included.
        c. Other references tell us that the townspeople of Nazareth were taken aback at Jesus' wisdom as He preached. The implication is that He grew up in their midst as a normal Jewish boy. They were amazed at the Messianic emphasis of His ministry. This was an entirely new element.
            Lk 4:22 ""And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, "Is this not Joseph's son?"'
            Matt 13:54-5 6 (cf. Mk 6:3) "And coming to His home town [i.e. the place where He grew up] He began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they became astonished, and said, "Where did ths man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Where then did this man get all these things?"'
    3. The expense and distance make such a trip unlikely.
    This kind of travel would have been extremely difficult for a youngster. The distances that had to be covered were incredible for anyone in that time, adult or child, given the methods of transportation. In addition, Jesus came from an extremely poor family who could not afford the incredible expenses a trip like that would incur.
    4. Gentile culture was repugnant to Jews.
        At that time in history Jewish involvement with Gentiles was strictly limited. Non-Jewish culture was repugnant to a Hebraic (as opposed to Hellenistic) Jew. Jesus would have little cultural tolerance for living in the midst of idol Worshiping Gentiles in India.
    5. Jesus taught Judaism, not Hinduism.
        Theologically, Jesus' teaching was completely antithetical to the world view of eastern religions. His theology was thoroughly grounded on a Hebraic concept of God and reality. Jesus continued to refer to the Old Testament, indicating His respect for the Law and the prophets and the God of Israel. In fact, He kept the Law impeccably. He never quoted or even alluded to the Vedas.
    6. Conclusion:
        Every shred of hard evidence we have places Jesus in the land of Israel for His entire life except the brief sojourn in Egypt (which the historical accounts are careful to note).

IV. Quality of the witnesses.

A. The disciples had little motivation to lie.
    1. Not only was it contrary to their strict morality, it would gain them nothing.
    2.Being a Christian back then was a ticket to ridicule and persecution.
        were promised the same fate as their Master (MatL 10:23-25).
    3.Every apostle except John (who probably died a natural death) was killed because of his belief in Jesus. In other words, they signed their testimony in blood.

B. In a court of law these writers would qualify as the very best of witnesses.
    1. In court, the testimony of a witness can be impeached by one of five lines of attack:
        a. By proving that the witness, on a previous occasion, has made statements inconsistent with his present testimony.
        b. By demonstrating bias in the witness.
        c. By attacking the character of the witness.
        d. By questioning the capacity in the witness to observe, remember, or recount the matters testified about.
        e. By proving through other witnesses that material facts are otherwise than as testified (Cleary p. 72).
    2. The testimony of these men is not vulnerable to any of these charges:
        a. There is no conflicting or inconsistent testimony.
            There is no evidence that the Gospel writers claimed at a previous time that the events in question never happened. Instead, they began proclaiming the salient facts from the outset and it didn't change.
        b.The issue of bias and self-interest strengthens the credibility of the witnesses' testimonY rather than weakens it.
            The lives of the witnesses to Jesus Christ were continually in peril. In many cases the early Christians were driven under ground into hiding, yet they clung fervently to their testimony, affirming the teachings of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. For this testimony they were crucified en mass, fed to the lions, sacrificed by the Roman gladiators or beheaded. One simple thing would have saved them this torment: recanting. These witnesses did exactly the opposite of what self-interest would dictate.
        c. There is no evidence to impugn the witnesses' character. indicating that they might be lying.
            Not only was it totally inconsistent with the moral standard they professed and lived by, but also there was no motivation to fabricate.
        d. The unique nature of the events and the nature of the testimony lend themselves to accurate observation andrecall.
            Their is no direct evidence that the witnesses' capacity to observe was distorted. The accounts are clear and lucid, giving an abundance of detail. They read like the testimony of one intimately acquainted with the facts of the issue, someone who was personally involved with the process, who was proximal to the events in question, and who had repeated opportunity to observe those events.
            Matthew and John personally made visual identification of the risen Christ, an individual they had spent more than three years in intimate, personal contact with.
        e. John and Matthew corroborate each other and are supported other extraneous evidence
            Disproving the facts of the first witness is generally accomplished using the testimony of a second witness. When we compare the testimony of the eyewitnesses John and Matthew, however, we find that their accounts mesh. Their accounts also coincide with the historical summaries given by Luke, the companion of Paul, and Mark, the Apostle Peter's companion.
            Since each one's experience with Jesus was not the same, there are some differences, as you'd expect. There is sufficient unanimity between the witnesses to demonstrate corroboration, but sufficient variation in details and viewpoints in the accounts to eliminate the charge of collaboration.

V. Words and culture
For the purpose of this course, I have made the following standard assumptions that make intelligent study of the materials possible:

A. Since the gospels purport to be historical information, I read them as such. I don't read them as poetry or mythology.

B. I assume that Jesus and the writers that quote Him are attempting to say something important. Therefore I assume they will be speaking as clearly as possible. As such, I take the plain sense of their statements at face value, just as I would normal communication.

C. I assume the normal conventions of language. Meaning is derived from words in relation to sentences and paragraphs. My interpretation must be derived from the context if language is to convey any meaning.

D. The speaker's or author's intent is the fundamental issue of interpretation. His culture, language, and audience are critical factors in understanding what he means.16

E. Finally, I give the benefit of the doubt to the author. I don't assume he's lying, contradicting himself or misrepresenting the facts unless I have sound reasons to do so.
    1The term "cult" here is not used in a negative sense but in a technical one: "Any religious movement that is organizationally distinct and has doctrines and/or practices that contradict those of the Scriptures as interpreted by traditional Christianity..." Sire, p. 20.

    2Most of the following information for JW's, Mormons and Christian Scientists is taken from the pamphlet "The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error,' compiled by Keith Brooks, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976)

    3Paul goes as far as saying that if the resurrection of Christ is not an historical reality, then Christians are of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

    4At His trial, Jesus was condemned to die not for what He did (they could find no valid charges against Him), but for who He said He was: "And the high priest said unto Him, "I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.' And Jesus said to him, "You have said it yourself.' ... Then the high priest tore his robes saying, "He has blasphemed!' . . . "He is deserving of death."' (Matt 26:63-66)

    5A11 Scripture references throughout this syllabus are from the New American Standard Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.

    6See Whiston for all of these references.

    7Add to this list, of course, a significant number of references from within Christian circles, including all of the church fathers (Origen, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Papias, Eusebius, etc.).

    8Barnett, pp. 30-31

    9The word "gospel" comes from the Greek euaggelion, meaning good news or tidings (Young, p. 430).

    10Twelve O.T. references are introduced with the phrase, "This happened to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet." The gospel itself starts with a genealogy, of particular importance to Jews awaiting theirMessiah.

    111n the case of each of the gospels, the material was not recorded in its present form until years after the events. It's clear, though, that the material was communicated to the young church starting immediately after the resurrecüon (see Acts 2&3), being rehearsed hundreds of times by those who ultimately supplied the information for the gospels. Each gospel was written by those who were close to the events themselves at a time when many eyewitnesses, including hostile ones, were available to confirm the accounts. It was this detailed "oral tradition" that gave doctrinal substance and spiritual vitality to the early church

    12Renowned archaeologist Sir William Ramsay wrote, "Luke is an historian of the first .... . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians" (Ramsay, p. 222).

    13Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in their content and are therefore often referred to as the "Synoptic' gospels (syn-together, opsis-view). They share much of the same material about Jesus' life (50-75% overlap), though their style and sequence are different. By contrast, less than 10% of the material in John is paralleled in the Synoptics (ISBE vol. 2, p. 532).

    14The oldest manuscript we have of the New Testament is a small portion of the Gospel of John discovered in Egypt called the John Ryland Papyrii, dated c. 140 A.D. This indicates that the fourth gospel was circulated and in widespread use far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor) by the first half of the 2nd century (Unger. p. 598, Metzger, pp. 38-39).

    15The prevailing opinion is that the Gospel of Mark was written first, followed by Matthew and Luke who probably used Mark as a source text, borrowing parts of it then expanding on it with their own contributions. John followed much later, at the end of the apostolic era.

    16The concept of "Christ" is a perfect example. The word "Christ" is simply the Greek translation of the word "Messiah." Where ever you read the word Christ, therefore, you can substitute Messiah. This concept of Messiah has a long tradition and history connected with it, giving it a very specific and technical meaning. Cult groups of the 20th century, however, have isolated the term Christ from its cultural context and given it their own meaning, suggesting that "the Christ" is a level of spiritual development that Jesus attained to and we can all attain to. This practise does violence to the conventions of language.

About Mr. Koukl:

    A central theme of Greg's speaking and writing is that Christianity can compete in the marketplace of ideas when it's properly understood and properly articulated. He has had many opportunities to argue in the public arena for the viability of classical Christianity.
    One of Greg's teachings has been featured on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast. He was a frequent guest on KABC's Religion on the Line in Los Angeles. Greg has been quoted in U.S. News & World Report and was a regular columnist in The Plain Truth Magazine. An award-winning writer, Greg has published a new book with Dr. Francis J. Beckwith, Relativism; Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, and is the author of Precious Unborn Human Persons. Greg received his B.A. in Bible from Azusa Pacific University, his Masters in Christian Apologetics from Simon Greenleaf University and is working on his Masters In Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Talbot School of Theology. He hosts his own radio talk show advocating clear-thinking Christianity and defending the Christian world view.

Back to Top