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The challenge the New Testament makes to the world

The New Testament’s central claim — that God assumed flesh, dwelled among us, atoned for our sins and then rose physically from the dead — is dramatic. Unsurprisingly, therefore, skeptics argue that it’s merely a collection of pious myths and legends. However, as the British literary scholar C. S. Lewis observes in his “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” it doesn’t read that way:

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that none of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage … (or) some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”

But can Christ’s reported miracles be believed?

In his “Jesus and the Constraints of History,” the British biblical scholar Anthony Harvey argues that the matter-of-fact way in which they’re described supports their authenticity:

“In general one can say that the miracle stories in the gospels are unlike anything else in ancient literature. … They do not exaggerate the miracle or add sensational details, like the authors of early Christian hagiography (biographies of saints); but nor do they show the kind of detachment, amounting at times to skepticism, which is found in Herodotus or Lucian. … To a degree that is rare in the writings of antiquity, we can say, to use a modern phrase, that they tell the story straight."

“There is no doubt,” concurs James Charlesworth in his “Jesus Research and the Appearance of Psychobiography,” “that Jesus did perform amazing healings; his opponents admitted as much when they said he was able to perform such healings because he was possessed.”

But if the Gospel narratives aren’t heavily fictionalized, if they reliably describe a real person, the implications are stunning. Jesus is a remarkable figure.

“One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed,” Lewis writes in “Mere Christianity,” “because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean, the claim to forgive sins: any sins.”

It’s one thing, he points out, if you step on my toe or steal my money and I forgive you for it. It’s quite another if I forgive you for stepping on someone else’s toe or stealing somebody else’s money.

“Yet this,” Lewis observes, “is just what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if he was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.”

However, Lewis continues, silliness and conceit are difficult to see in the New Testament’s Jesus. When Christ refers to his own humility and meekness, he’s believable.

“I am trying here,” Lewis writes, "to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Since Jesus was neither lunatic nor devil, Lewis reasons, “however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he was and is God.”