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When you think of Jesus Christ, do you think of the weak and effeminate Jesus often portrayed in the media? The Bible reveals the real Jesus—and He is quite different from what many imagine!
Where did you get your ideas about Jesus Christ of Nazareth?
Within the last year, Jesus Christ has been the subject of both a best-selling novel and a blockbuster movie. For more than a year, The DaVinci Code, a suspenseful work of fiction, has rested near the top of the New York Times' best-seller list. Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, has broken box office records in the United States and around the world.
The recently completed 12-book Left Behind series, a fictional (and quite inaccurate) account of events leading up to Christ's return, has been second only to the Harry Potter books as a publisher's gold mine. Clearly, Jesus Christ fascinates millions of people. They are curious about the origins of Christianity, as well as whether or not Jesus Christ will return to this earth.
The problem is that there are so many different ideas floating around. People are getting their ideas from the most unlikely—and inaccurate—of places.
From where have you received your information about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and the message that He taught? What Jesus do you know? Is your Jesus the "traditional Sunday School" Jesus, the DaVinci Code Jesus, the "social gospel" revolutionary Jesus, the "hippie" Jesus—or perhaps the "anything goes" Jesus so popular with "modern Christians" today? Do any of these images represent the real Jesus?
Depending on who is presenting Him, you can nowadays hear Jesus depicted as a right-wing Republican, a feminist, a gender-bending modernist, a poverty-stricken weakling or a fierce advocate of revolution against the wealthy.
It is common for "Christians" to reinvent a Jesus suitable to their own likes and dislikes. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson did so nearly 200 years ago, when he sat down in the White House with two identical New Testaments and a razor. He proceeded to cut out those sections that he thought represented the "real" teachings of Jesus—leaving out miracles and claims of divinity—and pasted them into a large folio book to create his own version of the New Testament. This is not unlike what some contemporary scholars—notably the so-called "Jesus Seminar"—have done in our time.
In the midst of such utter confusion, is there any way to know the truth? Can you know the real Jesus and what He taught? The truth is actually far more astounding than all of the ideas and inventions of men! If you want the real facts, then read on.
The story line of The DaVinci Code involves the discovery of other "gospels" that were left out of the New Testament, and an alleged centuries-old plot by the Roman Catholic Church to suppress those books. This makes for a good novel, but is far from the facts! The Roman Catholic Church had absolutely nothing to do with creating the New Testament! This may seem like a shocking statement, but it is a fact. The Roman Catholic Church, as it emerged from the Council of Nicaea in 325ad, was very different in its teachings and practices from the church of which you read in the book of Acts. In fact, surviving historical records from the second and third centuries illustrate a clear transition away from the teachings and practices of the Apostles to a very different brand of "Christianity." More information on this interesting subject can be found in our free booklet Restoring Apostolic Christianity.
Who, then, did put together our New Testament? The answer is found in 2 Peter 1:12–21. The Apostle Peter explained to his readers that his death was imminent, and that he wished to ensure that after he was gone there would be an authoritative record of Jesus' real teachings. There were already, in the late 60s ad, "cunningly devised fables" (v. 16) circulating. Peter explained that the young Christian community should look to him, and to his fellow Apostle, John, for the "sure word of prophecy."
This becomes clear when we read Peter's words carefully. Beginning in verse 12, Peter writes in the first person singular about his approaching death, and his desire to leave a permanent record. In verse 16, he abruptly switches from "I" to "we." Who is the "we?" The answer becomes plain in verses 16 through 18. The "we" are those who accompanied Jesus to the mountain where they saw His transfiguration, and heard the voice from heaven (Matthew 17:1–6). These were Peter, John, and James the brother of John. By the time Peter was writing 1 Peter, James had died—the first of the Apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:1–2)—so Peter's "we" had to refer to him and to John.
Before his death in the late winter of 68ad, Peter put together the very first "canon" of the New Testament, consisting of 22 books. Near the end of the first century, John added the five books that he wrote, bringing to 27 the number of books in the New Testament that we have today. Already in the second century, in the earliest writings of the "Church Fathers," we see that the New Testament canon existed, and was quoted from and referenced frequently. Certainly there were attempts to change the canon, but its books were already written and too well known to be abandoned.
How should we understand the various "lost gospels" referred to by the author of The DaVinci Code and other writers? We should not be surprised by such discoveries, because the New Testament itself warns of spurious gospels already circulating in the days of the original Apostles. How much more would we expect such accounts to multiply in subsequent years, after the Apostles had died? Remember that the Apostle Paul, writing in the mid-50s, warns of those who sought to bring "another gospel" and "another Jesus" (2 Corinthians 11:4). He labeled these preachers as "false apostles" and "deceitful workers" (v. 13). Peter assured his readers that he and John had not followed the "cunningly devised fables" that were already extant in the first century.
Some of these false gospels have survived, however, and have found a new audience in recent years with the discovery of the "Nag Hammadi" library. In December 1945, a young Egyptian farmer unearthed a pottery jar containing several ancient books written in Coptic. Translation began in earnest in the 1950s, and the content of these books has since fed into radically new interpretations of Jesus, His mission and His message. Eventually, these books—with such titles as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Mary—became available in English. Though the physical copies of these books were new discoveries, knowledge of their contents and of their teachings was not. They represent the Gnostic heresies that originated in the first century and flowered in the second and third, which were well known to, and quoted in the writings of, the early "Church Fathers."
As for the real New Testament, it was preserved exactly where we would expect it to be. Historians are unanimous in noting that John, the last original Apostle, died in Asia Minor at Ephesus. The writings of Eusebius and others make plain that during the second and third centuries ad, the churches in Asia Minor, which had had John's direct guidance, preserved the practices of the original Jerusalem Church (such as observing Passover on Abib 14 rather than keeping the Roman Easter). It is from Asia Minor that the Byzantine family of New Testament texts originated—the text officially preserved in the Greek world.
It is not enough to possess the Bible, God's authoritative revelation to mankind, to know about the real Jesus. There are more Bibles in the English-speaking world than there are people—yet how many actually study the Bible? Even many who read it fail to understand its message. Often they have derived their understanding of the Bible's teachings from what other people have told them, rather than from looking at what the book itself plainly says.
Much of what passes for "traditional Christian teaching" today does not come from the Bible. When Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code asserts that many of the motifs associated with pagan sun worship were incorporated into "Christianity" due to the influence of Emperor Constantine, he is absolutely right. These motifs are condemned in the Bible. In fact, it was the Bible itself—not some obscure Gnostic text—that the Roman Catholic Church sought for centuries to suppress. That is why the papacy long fought efforts to make the Bible available in vernacular tongues that people could actually read. It is a matter of historic record that for centuries the Roman Church sought to keep the Bible out of the hands of the laity, making it an esoteric book available only to the priests: venerated, but unknown.
Why would this be? Knowledge of what the Bible actually says would show the many false teachings that have crept into "Christianity." The New Testament, for example, reveals a Jesus Christ who kept His Father's commandments. Jesus stated plainly that He did not come to "destroy [literally, "throw down"] the law and the prophets, but to fulfill [fill up]" (Matthew 5:17). When a young man asked Him what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said: "Keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). The Jesus Christ of the Bible personally kept the seventh-day Sabbath, and the festivals commanded in Leviticus 23. He never—and no serious scholar would claim that He had—kept Sunday, Easter or Christmas, or suggested that anyone else should do so!
Jesus Christ did not try to meld His followers together into a political movement to reform the Roman Empire. Rather, He came announcing a coming Kingdom that would rule all nations. His disciples understood that He spoke of a literal kingdom. In fact, one of the last questions that they asked Him concerned when—not if—that Kingdom would be set up (Acts 1:6). Jesus did not tell His followers that if they would "give their hearts to Him" they would go to heaven. Rather, He taught that His true disciples would, in the resurrection, inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5)!
As for merely "believing in Jesus," notice this plain statement found in John 8:31: "Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If you continue in My word, then are ye my disciples indeed" (KJV). He told His disciples that they must put Him before all, including their own families, if they were to be counted worthy of Him (Luke 14:26). He also declared that unless we deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Him, we cannot be His disciples (Luke 9:23). Jesus Christ did not come offering "cheap grace." This is a far cry, indeed, from the "Sunday School Jesus" you may have heard about!
Not only was Jesus' message vastly different from what is commonly supposed; neither did He look anything at all like the traditional portraits or movie portrayals! We have no images of Jesus from his own day, as the earliest Christians never used pictures or statues of Him. Notice this admission from church historian Henry Chadwick in The Pelican History of the Church: "Both Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria regarded this prohibition [the second commandment, forbidding graven images] as absolute and binding upon Christians. Images and cultic statues belonged to the demonic world of paganism. In fact, the only second-century Christians known to have had images of Christ were radical Gnostics" (vol. 1, p. 277).
The New Testament never focuses on Jesus' physical appearance in human flesh by giving a description of Him, but one fact is clear: Jesus looked like an ordinary Jew of His day. He was hard to pick out in a crowd, and the religious leaders paid Judas a considerable sum of money—30 pieces of silver—to identify Him so that they could ensure that they arrested the right man.
One noticeable contrast between traditional pictures of Jesus and the way He really looked is that Jesus, like other Jews of His day, did not wear long hair. The Bible clearly states that to wear long hair is shameful to a man (1 Corinthians 11:14). The priests, who were expected to set an example for the rest of the nation, were explicitly forbidden either to shave their heads or to allow their hair to grow long (Ezekiel 44:20). Pictures and statues that survive from the first century show that short hair was the norm throughout the Greco-Roman world. While Jesus probably wore a beard, as was customary for Jewish men of that time, He would have worn His hair short.
Author Stephen Prothero, in his book American Jesus, asserts that the effeminate "Sunday-School Jesus" was a 19th century creation. In fact, the real Jesus was not a "sissy," but was accustomed to hard physical work and outdoor living. Throughout his adolescence and young manhood, He had worked as a builder (Mark 6:3); and He did so in the days before power tools! During the years of His ministry, He and His disciples walked the roads of Galilee, Samaria and Judea, often camping out under the stars.
The movies portray a distorted picture of Jesus, and the society in which He lived and functioned. He and His followers are usually pictured as a dirty rag-tag group against the backdrop of a dusty desert world. That entire picture is in error. First century Galilee, where Jesus grew up and where much of His ministry took place, was a rich, prosperous land. Northern Galilee was heavily forested, while southern Galilee was a rich agricultural area. Rainfall ranged from about 50 inches a year in the north to about 20 inches in the south.
Commercial fishing in the Sea of Galilee was a lucrative business, exporting pickled and salted fish throughout much of the Roman Empire. Several of Jesus' earliest disciples, including two sets of brothers—Peter and Andrew and James and John—were commercial fishermen who owned their own boats and employed servants (Mark 1:20). Some scholars are convinced that archaeological excavations at Capernaum have actually uncovered Peter's house, where Jesus frequently stayed. It was a larger than average one-story stone house, built around an irregularly shaped courtyard, facing the harbor, a short distance from the synagogue (see Bible Review, Feb. 2004, p. 17). Capernaum in the first century was a thriving, prosperous community.
Nazareth, too—where Jesus grew up—was not the isolated backwater that many imagine. Though in the first century it was a small town of about 500 people, it was only about five miles from Sepphoris, the Roman capital of Galilee. Sepphoris was a beautiful city, set on a hilltop, complete with paved streets, running water and Roman baths and theaters. It was a prosperous cosmopolitan capital where Greeks, Romans and Jews all lived and did business.
It is interesting to note that about a year after Jesus' birth, the city of Sepphoris rebelled following the death of Herod the Great. The Roman governor of Syria put down the rebellion, and destroyed much of the city. For the next 30 years or so, Sepphoris was the center of a massive construction project as Herod's son, Herod Antipas, sought to rebuild the city as his capital. Nearby workers with skills in the building trades—like Jesus and his stepfather Joseph—would have found plenty of well-paying work available during the years of the building boom, as noted by renowned Sepphoris archaeologist James Strange.
The common image of Jesus and His earliest followers as illiterate peasants is also much at variance with the real history of the period. Literacy was far more widespread during that period than is commonly recognized today. Many in Galilee, Samaria and Judea were not only literate in Aramaic, but in Greek as well. In fact, many could also speak Latin. We know this for a variety of reasons. Coins, such as the one Jesus asked to see in Matthew 22:19, commonly bore an inscription in Greek. In the temple there were signs (one of which has been recovered from an archaeological excavation) written in Greek, warning Gentiles to proceed no further under pain of death. Clearly, it was expected that visitors could read the sign! Excavations at one of Herod's palaces have shown that jars for wine and various imported foodstuffs were labeled with the contents, revealing that at least some of the servants in Herod's kitchen could read. Some of these items were imported from Rome and bore Latin labels, in addition to the more common Greek inscriptions. We know that Jesus read aloud from the scriptures in the synagogue (Luke 4:16–17) and on one occasion wrote words on the ground that many present were able to read (John 8:8).
We need to understand that the milieu out of which Jesus and His earliest followers were drawn was far different from what is generally portrayed in the movies. While there were certainly extremes of wealth and poverty living side by side in that society, there was also—especially in Galilee—a thriving middle class, including commercial fisherman, builders, civil servants, and family farmers who raised grapes, olives and grain. Literacy was common, and so was the ability to converse in at least Greek and Aramaic, and some also in Latin. After all, when Pilate inscribed a sign in Aramaic, Greek and Latin, to be affixed to the stake above Jesus' head, it was expected that passersby and onlookers could read it!
You will not learn much about the real Jesus Christ of Nazareth from either the movies or the books that purport to tell you about Him. Not only did He look far different from the way He is commonly pictured, He taught a message far different from what is commonly thought. He cannot be fastened to a 21st century label of liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.
The real Jesus, too, was not a "wimp" or a sissy. He was thoroughly masculine, commanding the respect and loyalty of young followers who were both successful and hard-working. On the one hand, He was prepared to walk boldly into the courtyard of the Temple with a plaited whip, drive the animals out and overthrow the tables of the moneychangers. On the other hand, He was moved with compassion for the sick and afflicted. Jesus surprised some of the pushy, aggressive young men who were His closest followers by taking time to hold infants in His arms and invoke God's blessing on them (Luke 18:15–16).
Jesus was not what most today would call a "feminist." Yet he treated women with great respect and courtesy—sometimes much to their own surprise (John 4:9). He included women among those whom He taught (Luke 10:39), answered their questions, and served them by healing and helping them. Both the feminist and homosexual rights agendas are contrary to scripture, and Jesus Christ made plain that He was in no way seeking to tear down the Law and the Prophets. Yet He offered compassion and forgiveness to repentant sinners, even while giving them the clear instruction to "go and sin no more" (John 8:11).
Jesus Christ warned His disciples that many would come "in My name," but would deceive people by teaching a false message (Matthew 24:5). That has been going on since the days of the first century, as the Apostle Paul indicated in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 when he declared that "the mystery of lawlessness" was already at work. As we approach the end of this age, the Bible warns of false prophets who will teach a false message. Some of these will even produce various signs and wonders that will deceive the vast majority of people (Matthew 24:24). Will you be one of those who will be deceived?
Unless you come to know the real Jesus, you will fall for a false message, and accept a false Christ who cannot save anyone from anything! How can you be sure that you can distinguish the real from the false? Study your Bible. Do not let human traditions substitute for God's word in defining the truth. Get to know the real God of the Bible—and the Messiah He sent.
Make no mistake about it—Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary man. He was not simply a "good man" or a mere prophet. Flesh and blood He was, but not a mere man! He was our Savior and Messiah. He was Immanuel: "God with us." As God, He emptied Himself of the great glory that He had shared with the Father from eternity, to become our Savior (John 1:1–3, 14), and He was restored to that glory by the power of the Father so that He might be our daily intercessor and our soon-coming King. Do not be misled into accepting a false Christ. Come to truly know and to daily walk with the real Jesus Christ of the Bible!