We tend to overlook part of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus, said C.S. Lewis 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, Lewis points out, if you step on my toe and I forgive you. It’s quite another if I forgive you for stepping on someone else’s toe. I can forgive someone who steals my money, but I have no right to forgive anybody for stealing yours.
“Yet this,” Lewis writes, “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 observes, few readers of the New Testament (if any) come away thinking Jesus silly and conceited. (Lewis himself was a famously talented reader.) We’re inclined to believe Jesus' claims of meek humility even though claiming to forgive sins on behalf of God seems the polar opposite of humble meekness.
“I am trying here,” Lewis explains, “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.”
Finally, since Jesus appears to be neither lunatic nor devilish fiend, Lewis concludes that, “however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he was and is God.”
Still, skeptics might be able to escape the dilemma Lewis sketches because he omitted an obvious possibility: Maybe the New Testament Gospels aren’t reliable. Perhaps the Jesus depicted in them is largely or even entirely a character in a fictional story.
This is a huge topic; innumerable books have been written arguing about the historical accuracy of the four Gospels. I’ll content myself here with observations from two scholars.
In a 2002 essay titled “Jesus Research and the Appearance of Psychobiography,” Princeton’s James Charlesworth, who is scarcely a fundamentalist, remarks that “There is no doubt 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.”
And Anthony Harvey, a leading British scholar, points in his “Jesus and the Constraints of History" to the matter-of-fact character of the New Testament miracle stories as an indicator of their authenticity: “In general,” he writes, “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 (biographies of saints); 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."
In other words, the New Testament Gospels don’t read like fiction, and the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t seem to be an exaggerated, semifictional character.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.