Who is Jesus? A study in the gospel of Luke          Week 1

Leader’s Notes

Much of the material in this study is based loosely on the course “Simply Christianity” by John Dickson, which is published by Matthias Media.  I recommend this book, although I have condensed the course to four weeks, and have changed some of the material.  I was rushed for time each week, so a longer course would certainly be possible. Anyone is welcome to use any or all of this material if you find it helpful.

Initial question: Why are we interested in Jesus?  Why do we want to know who He is?

1.  Objectively, it is possible to make the case that Jesus Christ is the single most important figure in human history.  Jesus Christ and the movement that he started literally changed the course of human civilization over the last two thousand years.

2. Subjectively, people all over the world, from all cultures, and throughout the last two millennia have claimed that encountering Jesus and following him has changed their lives.

3.  For anyone interested in Christianity, the essential question needs to be “Who is Jesus?”  Christianity is not primarily about rituals or about a philosophy or even about a system of ethics and morality.  It is primarily about the historical person of Jesus Christ, a man who lived in 1st century Palestine.  In fact, one might define Christianity as “responding appropriately to Jesus.”

Over the next four weeks, we’ll be looking at the life of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the gospel of Luke and we’ll be trying to answer several important questions: Are the New Testament documents historically reliable?  What is Jesus’ central message?  What did Jesus teach about himself, about man, and about God?  Did Jesus’ death and Resurrection really happen?  And if so, what do they mean?  Each week, I’ll probably begin by giving a brief talk on the central theme of the class, and we’ll then spend some time asking questions and discussing.  But feel free to jump in at absolutely any time to ask questions!  This week, we’re going to address two important questions: first, is the New Testament historically reliable and second, what is Jesus’ central message?

So let’s dive right into those two questions.  First, is the New Testament historically reliable and second, what is Jesus’ central message?

I.  Is the New Testament historically reliable?

If we want to learn about Jesus, as with any historical figure, the obvious place to start his with his biographies.  The earliest accounts of the life of Jesus are contained in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament.  All four of these books record the words and deeds of Jesus, so we actually have not just one but four different biographies of his life, each with a distinctive emphasis due to the different perspectives of the authors.  For instance, the gospel of Matthew was probably written by the apostle Matthew, who was one of Jesus’ disciples.  The focus of his gospel is the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, and Jesus’ role as the Jewish MessiahMark’s gospel is the shortest, and one of the major themes in his work is Jesus’ role as a suffering servantLuke’s gospel emphasized Jesus’ relationship with the poor, with women, with outcasts, and with “non-religious” people.  Finally, John’s gospel has a special concern for theological issues related to Jesus’ identity.  Reading all four of these biographies can help to give us a broader understanding of Jesus, because each author emphasizes different aspects of Jesus’ life and views them from different angles.  For instance, let’s say I picked up two biographies of President Obama, one written by an American author and the other by a Kenyan author.  Both biographies might be very accurate, but they would almost certainly include different material because the authors would be interested in different aspects of President Obama’s life.

But one important question we need to ask is: are the biographies of Jesus in the New Testament historically reliable?  That is, if we want to know more about the historical figure of Jesus Christ, can we trust the material in the gospels?  Are they historically reliable?  Do they preserve an accurate description of the words and deeds of Jesus?  I’d like to argue that the answer is yes.  There are many excellent books on the subject, the most accessible of which is “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel.  But this morning, I’d like to give you five reasons that we can trust the biblical accounts: first, the testimony of the author; second, the documentary evidence; third, the manuscript evidence; fourth, the archaeological evidence; and fifth, the eyewitness evidence.

A.  The testimony of the author.

1.  Luke claims to be writing history, not fiction, drawn from older written sources, eyewitness testimony, and personal investigation (Lk. 1:1-4)


First, it’s always important to ask what genre the author of a document is writing.  Is it poetry?  Is it history?  Is it mythology?  To answer this question, let’s first turn to the Bible itself, to the very beginning of Luke’s gospel and read Chapter 1 versus 1-4.  Let’s notice two things about his passage: First, let’s ask why Luke is writing this gospel.  In v. 4, Luke says that he is writing this gospel for a man named Theophilus “so that [he] may know the certainty of the things [he has] been taught.”  Immediately, that tells us something interesting about Luke’s perspective on Christianity.  Luke doesn’t say: “Well, Theophilus, I’m glad you’re a Christian.  But as long as you believe in God and are a good person, it really doesn’t matter whether any of this stuff about Jesus is true.  All that matters is that you have faith!”  Quite the opposite!  Luke says that he wants to strengthen Theophilus’ faith by sending him this account of Jesus’ life, so that he will know the “certainty” or the “truth” of the things that he has been taught.  But second, let’s ask what Luke is writing. And it’s very clear from this passage that Luke intends to write a history.  Luke’s gospel does not start “once upon a time” or “a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.   At the very beginning he says that he is setting out to write down an “orderly account” of “the things that have been fulfilled among us”.  And he then, like any good historian, he proceeds to list his sources.  First, he is aware of other gospels that have been written: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account”, second in v.2 he mentions eyewitness testimony of those who “from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”  And finally, he says that he himself investigated these accounts.  So at the very least, we have to recognize that Luke is claiming to be writing history, not fiction. 

B.  The documentary evidence.

1.  Non-Christian historians Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius (along with a few others) all mention Jesus

2.  These accounts confirm the major events in Jesus’ life and several minor details about Jesus and the early church mentioned in the New Testament


Second, let’s examine the manuscript evidence.  The four gospels were written about two thousand years ago, so how did they get from the pen of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into this Bible here?  And the answer is that after the originals were written, they were copied by hand by scribes, and these copies were copied by other scribes, and so on.  So how do we know that the current documents are accurate transmissions of the originals?  First, the sheer number of ancient manuscripts that we have for the New Testament absolutely dwarfs that of any other ancient historical document.  For instance, we have about 24,000 actual, physical ancient manuscripts of all or parts of the New Testament.  In contrast, the next most attested work is the Iliad by Homer, of which we have around 600 ancient manuscripts.  Second, the gap between the writing of the New Testament and the first hard copies that we have is times smaller than any other competing work of ancient literature.  We have physical scraps of the gospel of John taking to around 125 A.D. and larger pieces of the New Testament dating to between 200 and 300 A.D.  So the gap between the actual documents and our earliest fragments is between 30 and 150 years.  In contrast, the gap between the writing of Homer’s Iliad and the first physical copy that we have is around 400 years.  And the Iliad is by far the second-most authenticated ancient writing!  The gap between composition and manuscript evidence for other works is even greater.   The gap for Aristotle is 1400 years, for Plato 1200 years, for Tacitus 1000 years.  The earliest full copy of the Bible that we have is the Codex Sinaiticus from 360 A.D.  The earliest full copy of the Iliad that we have is probably the Venetus A manuscript from 900 A.D.  Third, because we have so much manuscript evidence, we can compare the manuscripts to correct for copying errors.  For instance, it is true that scribes occasionally misspelled works, miscopied letters, or even skipped whole lines.  But by comparing all of the manuscripts we have, especially those from different geographical locations, we can reconstruct more accurately what the original documents looked like.  The bottom line is that you don’t hear anyone loudly doubting the authenticity or reliability of Aristotle, or Tacitus, or Plato.  But if we accept the transmission of these manuscripts as reliable, then we must accept the transmission of the New Testament documents as reliable.

C.  The manuscript evidence

1.  We have far more manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient writing (NT: 24,000 manuscripts.  Iliad: 600 manuscripts)

2.  The gap between the writing of the NT and the first physical manuscripts is far smaller than for any other ancient writing (NT: 30-100 years.  Iliad: 400 years)

3.  The differences in the manuscripts are mostly minor and the abundance of manuscripts allows us to reconstruct the originals with high confidence


Third, let’s consider the documentary evidence outside of the Bible from ancient non-Christian writers.  Even if the documents were transmitted accurately, they may still not be historically reliable; do we have evidence from outside of the Bible that confirms the historical content of the New Testament?  Let’s imagine that we threw away every last copy of the Bible.  What would we know about Jesus?  Well, there are references to Jesus in the work of the Jewish historian Josephus (37A.D. – 100 A.D.), the Roman historians Tacitus (57-110 A.D.) and Suetonius (69 A.D. – 130 A.D.), Pliny the Younger (61A.D. – 112 A.D.), and a few others.  From these passages we learn that Jesus lived during the first century in Palestine; that he was called the Christ or “Messiah”, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, that his followers believed that he was a God, and that the movement he started continued to grow even after his death.  These passages also confirm several smaller details about Jesus and the early church like the fact that Jesus had a brother named James and that Christians refused to worship other gods.  Again, the reason that these details are so compelling is that these non-Christian authors had no allegiance to Christianity and regarded it as a “mischievous superstition.” 

D.  The archeological evidence

1.  No modern archeologist or historian denies that the setting of the New Testament gospels was the real, historic world of the 1st century Roman empire

2.  Archeologists have unearthed numerous artifacts, inscriptions, burial boxes, and buildings which confirm major and minor details of the NT.  For example, a small sample of the evidence includes: the burial box of the high priest Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57-67), the burial box of Jesus’ brother James (Mark 6:3), the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), Jacob’s well (John 4), the pool at Bethesda (John 5:1-14), the pool at Siloam (John 9:1-14), the theater at Ephesus (Acts 19:29), and Herod’s palace at Caesarea (Acts 23:33-35).

Fourth, the archaeological evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament is overwhelming.  The accounts in the New Testament are set in the real, historical setting of the 1st century Greco-Roman world.  No one has ever questioned the existence of the cities like Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, and Jerusalem which form a backdrop for the New Testament.  In other words, the New Testament is set in the real, historical world of the 1st century Roman Empire, not in some legendary locale like Camelot or Atlantis. But even more compelling are the confirmations of numerous minor details of the New Testament.  It would be possible to write historical fiction set against a realistic historical backdrop.  But providing accurate, minor historical details is more difficult.  Archaeologists have found the burial box of the high priest Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57-67), the burial box of Jesus’ brother James (Mark 6:3), the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), Jacob’s well (John 4), the pool at Bethesda (John 5:1-14), the pool at Siloam (John 9:1-14), the theater at Ephesus (Acts 19:29), and Herod’s palace at Caesera (Acts 23:33-35). In Acts, Luke uses the correct regional titles for government officials in Thessalonica (‘politarchs’), Ephesus (‘temple wardens’), Cyprus (‘proconcil’), and Malta (‘the first man of the island’).  Physical evidence such as inscriptions have also confirmed such figures as governor Pontius Pilate, Gallio proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17), Erastus city treasurer of Corinth (Rom 16:23), and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1).  Writing about the book of Acts, which is the sequel to the gospel of Luke, Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White writes: "For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. . . . Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted."{9} In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without error."

So far we’ve seen that the NT documents were transmitted accurately down through the centuries,  that the information in the New Testament agrees with what we know about Jesus from ancient non-Christian historians, and finally that archaeology confirms numerous major and minor statements made in the New Testament documents.  But finally, it is helpful to ask: how do we know that the reports about Jesus himself are accurate?  Were the authors of the New Testament documents concerned with writing accurate history?  And what were their sources? 

E.  The eyewitness evidence

1.  The gospels agree on all the major events of Jesus life, but show diversity in emphasis and content in minor details, consistent with eyewitness testimony

2.  The gospels record events and sayings that would have been embarrassing to the early church and confusing to early Christians.

3.  Several internal features indicate eyewitness testimony, including the fact that the proper names in the NT match the frequency of names used in Judea prior to (but not subsequent to) 70 A.D.


Let me give three reasons to believe that they were.  First, the harmony of the gospels, second the frankness of the gospels, and third the early date of the gospels. 

First, if you read all four gospels, you’ll notice that the gospels are in great harmony regarding all the events of Jesus’ life.  For instance, all four gospels record his baptism by John the Baptist, his teaching ministry, his miracles, his opposition by the religious authorities, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the Temple, his arrest, his crucifixion, and his Resurrection along with a large number of other events and sayings.  However, there are also some significant differences both in detail and in perspective.  This is one indication of eyewitness testimony.  If two narratives are perfectly identical, then historians assume that they are copies of one another.  If they are completely different and contradictory, then both might be false.  But if they agree on all major facts, but differ in details, then it is plausible that what we’re seeing is eyewitness testimony. 

Second, the frankness of the gospels is also an indication of their authenticity.  For instance, there are places in the gospels where Jesus says things that must have been very confusing to Christians.  For instance, there’s a place where a sick woman touches Jesus and Jesus looks around in the crown and asks “Who touched me?”  Or there’s a place where Jesus replies to a questioner “Why do you call me good?  There is no one good but God alone.”  Again, the early Christians believed that Jesus was God, so these statements would have been very confusing.  And yet, they are still recorded in the gospels.  If the gospels were rewritten to fit the early church’s theology or altered by subsequent scribes to fit with the church’s theology, why are these confusing statements still recorded?  Another example: we know that Peter was a leader of the early Christian church.  Yet if you read the gospels, Peter is shown to have betrayed Jesus and cursed him and abandoned him at his crucifixion.  Again, what is the incentive to portray the leader of the early church and the foremost of the apostles in such an unfavorable light?  It seems likely that these saying and events were recorded because the gospel writers did not feel at liberty to tamper with the events of Jesus life, regardless of how they felt about them. 

But third, the date of the gospels strongly suggests that the accounts are based on eyewitness testimony.  In the 19th century, many critical scholars believed that the gospels were written in the second- or third-century A.D. when there would have been plenty of time for legend to develop around the life of Jesus.  However, modern discoveries of ancient manuscripts have caused most scholars to abandon these theories.  Most non-Christian critical scholars now date all four gospels to within the lifetime of the apostles, the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life.  The standard (non-Christian scholarship) dates are Mark: 65-70 A.D. Matthew: 80-85A.D., Luke 85 A.D., John 90-100 A.D.   All of these dates are potentially within the lifetimes of twelve apostles, the first followers of Jesus and the eyewitnesses of his life.  I think there are actually many very compelling reasons to believe that the gospels were written even earlier.  The most interesting pieces of evidence are from a very recent book called “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” by Richard Baukham.  To show you how compelling this evidence is, let me first ask you to imagine that you’re writing a fictional novel about young men and women living in the U.S. during the 1950s.  Based on historical census data, the naming patters for this period are: Male:  Robert, James, John, Charles, Richard, William (~25% of total male population had these six names).  Female: Mary, Betty, Barbara, Dorothy, Patricia, Helen (~15% of total female population had these six names)

Obviously, it would be quite difficult to come up with names for your characters which had the same popularity as the real historical names.  Now imagine that you were trying to write a novel set in Australia during the 1950s.  Coming up with realistic names would be even harder.  What Baukham did was to compile a list of Jewish naming patterns from inscriptions, documents, and tombs.  He found that the naming patters changed significantly before and after 70 A.D. when Jerusalem fell to the Romans.  He then compared these naming patterns to all the proper names in the New Testament and he found that they clearly match the naming patters before 70 A.D., but not after.  So there are two possibilities.  Either the New Testament authors who were potentially living outside of Palestine after 70.A.D. all conspired to give their characters historically realistic Palestinian names from 50 years previously, or the NT authors were recording actual history.

So on balance, the evidence of ancient non-Christian historians, the manuscript evidence, the archeological evidence, and the eyewitness evidence all support the conclusion that the New Testament gospels are historically accurate documents. 

II.  What is Jesus’ central message?  (Luke 4:14-19)


A.  Jesus central message is about himself

1.  In this first moment of public ministry recorded in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is giving us his mission statement


This is the first glimpse Luke gives us of Jesus’ public teaching, so it clearly was chosen to capture what Luke considered to be the core of Jesus’ message and purpose.  And if you read the rest of the gospel of Luke, you see Luke pick up these themes again and again: Jesus’ concern for the poor and the oppressed, the outcast, and the sick, and most of all Jesus’ declaration of “the year of the Lord’s favor”, that is God’s grace to the undeserving.


2.  Jesus deliberately selected the Scripture that he chose to read


So Luke is telling us that Jesus did not just happen to be assigned this passage to read. Instead, we’re getting a glimpse into what Jesus himself believed about his role.


3.  Jesus saw himself as God’s unique representative as predicted by Isaiah. 


The passage selected by Jesus is all about the unique servant of God, the anointed one, or Christ, or Messiah, or Savior.  This servant will do certain things as God’s servant.  In particular, he will bring God’s blessing and healing to the people in the world who need it.


B.  Jesus central message is news, not advice


1.      Jesus came not primarily to teach, but to rescue (see also Luke 19:10).


We tend to see Jesus as a great moral teacher, and he certainly was that!  But as a result, we tend to go through the biographies of Jesus and pick out all of the rules, and moral lessons.  In other words, we read “blah, blah, blah. Ooooh a rule!  Blah, blah, blah healing lepers, feeding the hungry, blah, blah blah.  Ooooh another rule!”  But right here, when Jesus gives his mission statement, it’s an announcement.  It’s news.  It’s not advice.  Let me give you an illustration.  Let’s say you’re drinking a can of Coke.  I come up to you and say: “You shouldn’t drink Coke.”  You would say: “Thank you very much.  That’s good advice.  Maybe I’ll take it, maybe I won’t.  I’ll have to think about it.”  In other words, advice is about what I should do. But what if I came up to you and said “I put poison in your Coke.”  That’s not advice.  I’m not telling you what you should or shouldn’t do.  I’m giving you information.  And you need to decide whether that information is true or false.  Now obviously, if the information is true, then you will certainly have to change your behavior.  But when it comes to news, the primary question is: is this information true or false?


Or again, let’s say you are out of work and deeply in debt and the bank is about to foreclose on your house and you might actually end up in jail.  If I come to you and say: “You should get a job.  You should work hard and pay off your debt so that you don’t go to jail.”  That’s advice.  But if I come to you and say: “I have paid your debt.  I just went to the bank and paid your debt down to the last cent.  In fact, I also deposited $1,000,000 in your account.  You’re free!”  That’s news.  The primary question is whether I am telling the truth or not.  Again, if I am telling the truth, then obviously your whole life will change.  Everything will be different.  You will have to respond to this incredibly good news.  But there is a big difference between news and advice.


Now if you look at Jesus’ mission statement, it’s all news.  It’s all about what he came to do.  He came to preach good news to the poor, he came to free the oppressed, to declare recovery of sight for the blind and to announce God’s favor.  Again, this is an announcement, a declaration, news.  In fact, Jesus goes even further.  He doesn’t just say, “this is what I’m going to do.”  He says “Because I am here, this scripture has been fulfilled.  My presence makes all of this true.  I am here now.  I am here to do these things.”  That’s news!  And if you read the rest of Luke’s gospel or any of the gospel, you’ll see that Jesus’ message is always news, not advice.  In fact, the word gospel is actually Greek for “good news”!   In fact, if we look ahead a bit to Luke 19:10 you’ll see another verse in which Jesus summarizes his mission: “The son of man, that’s Jesus, came to seek and save that which was lost” 


So the message of Jesus is this: I have come to rescue you.  I have come to live the life you should have lived, and die the death that you deserve to die, so that I can rescue you.  I have come to save the lost.  In fact, in my death and Resurrection, I defeated sin and death and hell.  And I can give you complete forgiveness and reconciliation with God.”  That’s the news.  That is what Jesus has done.  The question is: is it true?  And if it is true, do we believe it?  And if we believe it, how will it change our lives?


So over the next few weeks, we’re going to be looking in more detail into what this good news about Jesus: the good news about who he is and what he’s done.  But obviously, it will take a lot of time and there will be a lot of questions we’ll have to answer.  So for now, let me stop talking and start trying to answer any questions you might have.


1.  Were there any other reliable writings about Jesus that weren’t included in the gospels?


There has been a fair amount of attention given to the recent discovery of the “Gnostic” gospels such as the gospel of Judas, the gospel of Mary, and the gospel of Thomas.  Many people claim that these gospels represent more accurate or at least alternative views of Jesus than the ones presented in the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).  However, holding such a belief is quite difficult given the probably dates of composition of these gospels.  Most non-Christian scholars date the Gnostic gospels (with the exception of the gospel of Thomas) to the 2nd-4th centuries, well after the composition of the canonical gospels and late enough for legends about Jesus to begin to accumulate.  The gospel of Thomas may have been composed earlier (although many non-Christian scholars would place its composition in the 2nd century) and it certainly does contain some material that is authentic.  However, about half of the sayings of Jesus in the gospel of Thomas have no similarities to those in the canonical gospels and many of the saying that are similar have been significantly altered in meaning and emphasis.  Perhaps more significant is the fact that the picture we get of Jesus in the gospel of Thomas is very different than the one presented in the canonical gospels.  The gospel of Thomas appears heavily influenced by Gnosticism, the idea that we can be saved by secret knowledge, which is clearly an idea completely foreign to the Jesus of the gospels, but is very consistent with what we know of certain pagan religious beliefs.  Thus, neither the gospel of Thomas nor the other Gnostic gospels are as reliable sources of information about Jesus as the four canonical gospels.


2.  How could the disciples of Jesus remember all of his teaching accurately?


We ask this question because we are part of a written culture which communicates primarily through writing.  In contrast, 1st century Judaism was an oral culture.  Many rabbis had committed to memory the entire Hebrew Scriptures, and it would have been considered quite normal for a disciple to memorize all of his rabbi’s teaching.  Furthermore, much of Jesus’ teaching was probably in poetic form to aid memorization.  Thus, it is not surprising that the disciples would be able to recite and hand down an accurate description of Jesus’ words.


3.  What other evidence do we have that the gospels are eyewitness testimony?


One of the features of the gospels that historians have noticed is the inclusion of named characters in some, but not all, of the gospel accounts such as healings.  In Baukham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” he makes a case that the use of such names was a way for the authors to reference eyewitnesses sources on which their reports were based.  For instance, in Luke’s gospel, we are told that Simon of Cyrene, “father of Rufus and Alexander”, was made to carry the cross for Jesus.  Why would this information be present?  Who are Rufus and Alexander?  Luke never mentions them again.  Or why is “blind Bartimaeus” who is healed by Jesus mentioned by name while other blind men are not named?  It seems plausible to conclude that the gospel authors included this information because these people would have been known to their readers, who could have questioned these witnesses further.  Similarly, Baukham suggests that some recipients of Jesus’ healings are mentioned by name because they joined the early Christian movement and served as sources, while other recipients remained anonymous.   For more discussion on this issue, see Baukham’s book itself, which is good, although it is a bit dry.


4.  Are the New Testament gospels the earliest source of information we have about Jesus?


No.  Actually, Paul’s letters are undisputedly the earliest Christian documents, composed between 20-30 years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection.  What is interesting is that many of the popular ideas about Jesus, like the idea that the church invented Jesus’ divinity hundreds of years after his life, tend to neglect the Pauline epistles because they are so problematic to this thesis.