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April 07, 2012

Rapid Response: Newsweek’s Jesus vs. the Real Jesus

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

For centuries Christians have greeted one another on Easter Sunday with this simple, yet robust pronouncement, which has historically been understand as the center of the Christian faith and worldview.  Every year, several mainstream media outlets, including Newsweek magazine, seek to sully this message by futilely attempting to discredit the historical Jesus and/or Scripture. This year Newsweek’s Andrew Sullivan took a different route: instead of outright denials of Jesus, the resurrection, and Christianity, he attempted to rewrite the focal point of Christianity, changing it from the resurrection to a Jesus made in his image.

Sullivan is a well-known British columnist who claims Roman Catholicism. In this year’s cover story, he offers his view of Jesus. As the subtitle of the article puts it: “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him.”

But Sullivan relies on faulty logic, disingenuous reasoning, and out-right falsities to make his argument that seekers will find the true Jesus when they strip away all else but the red letters in the Gospels.

Sullivan’s Claims vs. the Truth

Claim No. 1: The Gospels Can’t Be Trusted as Historical

An oft-repeated claim Sullivan uses in his piece is that the Gospels are unreliable for much else besides Jesus’ words. Opening with the story of Thomas Jefferson creating his own Bible only containing the words, teachings, and parables of Jesus, Sullivan offers the following critique of the gospels:

Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory.

In almost the same breath as his admonishment, Sullivan praises Christ’s teachings on wealth, power, and sin, along with the way Jesus lived and died. But this begs the questions: if we can’t trust the Gospels in some matters, how can we trust them in matters Sullivan admires? If we know portions to be untrue, shouldn’t we be suspicious of the whole?

More serious, though, is the fact that Sullivan is just plain wrong about the Gospels’ historical merits. Apologist and author Mike Licona pointed out in an interview with Summit Ministries that Sullivan’s historiography itself is suspect. “If we took that same approach to the rest of ancient history, we would have to discard most of what we know about the past,” he said.

Our knowledge of the life of Caesar Augustus is a prime example. Licona pointed out that most of what we know comes from six documents. Of those, five were written between 90 and 200 years after Caesar’s death. Yet, we still rely on them because of their historical merits, just as we should the Gospels.

The New Testament Gospels were written between 35 and 65 years after their events, about as far in the past for the disciples as the Vietnam War or World War II is for us. Yet we have no problem believing eyewitness accounts of those events. “[Sullivan is showing] historiographical naiveté,” Licona said. “He’s no historian.”

Also implied in Sullivan’s claim are supposed problems with the way information was handed down prior to the penning of the Gospels. Biblical scholarship has shown, though, that the mix of oral and written tradition used in first-century Palestine succeeded in preserving historical accounts.

As Summit alumnus Randy Hardman writes in the ebook True Reason, the preface to the Gospel of Luke tells us that several written accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death existed at the time. While the oral tradition may have been preferred, scribes of the day routinely took notes to help them memorize teachings, events, etc. The verification of Luke’s accounts in Acts, as made famous by the late Colin Hemer, lends great credibility to his Gospel. And when compared to the events in Luke, the other Gospels hold their historical integrity as well.

Many books have been devoted to defending the historicity of the Gospels. Suffice it to say that Sullivan’s claim that they are unreliable is simply not, well, reliable.

Claim No. 2: Jesus Didn’t Teach About Politics and Sexuality

Another of Sullivan’s main points is that current trends in Christendom betray the true message of Jesus:

The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson’s or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant.

In passages like these, Sullivan makes it clear his version of Jesus is woefully out of context of the Gospels themselves, as well as the rest of Scripture. In fact, so much of Jesus’ teachings were based on Old Testament and Jewish tradition that to ignore those sources is to strip Jesus’ teachings of any meaning. As Trevin Wax puts it, Sullivan wants us to have Jesus without Jesus.

Let’s take a look at just three examples:

  • Marriage. When it comes to marriage, Jesus did address more than just divorce and adultery. In Matthew 19:1-9, Jesus recounts Genesis in describing marriage as the bond between one man and one woman. Though he never directly addresses homosexuality, Jesus says plainly in Matthew 5:17, ” Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” That includes books of the Pentateuch where homosexuality is prohibited as counter to the cultural good of marriage. In the end, Licona says, “Jesus doesn’t have to address every single issue in the Old Testament to say he believes in it.” (For more information on why marriage and sexuality are key components of the biblical worldview, see the February issue of The Summit Journal).
  • Politics. Sullivan’s take on Jesus’ politics suffers from his reading the 21st century into a 1st century text. First, Jesus did make political statements. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) is undeniably a political statement, setting up God’s authority over the state. Licona points out that further instruction from Jesus on political involvement, though, wouldn’t have made sense to the people he was addressing. “It was not a democracy. The average person — one-third were slaves — lived in poverty,” Licona said. “They had no political power. It’s not like in Western culture today where we get to vote. That’s not the way the Roman world in which Jesus lived worked, so he’s not going to be addressing these issues.”
  • Abortion. Sullivan claims elsewhere that the saints focused on holy living and ignored political battles. He’s wrong. Alvin Schmidt documents in How Christianity Changed the World the ways in which Christians challenged the common practices of infanticide and abortion in the Roman world, even while they made no attempts to resist being persecuted, tortured, and killed themselves (For more on that, see the December 2011 issue of The Summit Journal). Sullivan does concede that there are some instances of grave injustice where political action is necessary. But if we divorce Jesus’ teachings from their political implications, how are we to know when political action is necessary? (For a closer look at the role of politics according to the biblical worldview, see the March issue of The Summit Journal).

Claim No. 3: The Point of Christianity is the Way Jesus Lived

Sullivan appears to believe that the hinge of the gospels is not the death and resurrection of Christ but Jesus’ altruism and meek demeanor:

The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all — calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.

This view negates the whole understanding of Jesus Christ told in both the Old and New Testaments. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ actions during his life and his persecution make him no different than the thousands of Christian martyrs who have come since. No grace, no propitiation, no conquering of sin and death.

Plus, it’s important to note that the fact of the resurrection actually has serious scholarly backing. Dr. Gary Habermas has pointed out in myriad articles and books that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is intelligent and reasonable, even when biblical sources are taken out of the equation.

Sullivan claims that true Christianity involves a renunciation of power, but the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection actually focuses us on an altogether higher level of power — the victory over evil and death. As author Matthew Lee Anderson points out:

Sullivan points to the crown of thorns and the mocking of his doubters as further evidence of Jesus’ renunciation of earthly power:  yet the irony of faith is that the crown of thorns is revealed as the crown of the King of Kings.  The one enthroned in heaven laughs, after all, because he understands that the joke is on those who scorned him.

Christians Should Be Prepared for These Types of Arguments

Sullivan’s arguments represent a significant change to the typical “Jesus is a fraud” article so common in news magazines over the years. They’re compelling, emotionally powerful, and disarmingly appealing.

And yet his reinterpretation of Jesus stands in stark contrast to the “whole counsel of god” and serious Bible scholarship. Jesus is more than just another in a long line of suffering prophets: he is the fulfillment of prophecy itself, the lynchpin of all reality, the one who conquered death and hell and made possible our reconciliation with God.

He is risen. He is risen indeed.

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