A blog post by Mark Herring
I recently read an interesting answer to this question written by William Lane Craig (Reasonable Faith, Questions of the Week #421). What follows is a summary of that article.
Dr Craig argues that the other two main monotheistic faiths fail to provide a satisfactory historical account of Jesus as well as Christianity does. In other words, Jesus is the stumbling stone for both.
The crux of the matter is whether the historical data shows Jesus is the divine Son of God. Or was he merely a human prophet or even heretic? Dr Craig briefly explores this question as a historian, looking at the New Testament and the Qur’an as the historian looks at any other sources for ancient history i.e. not treating them as inspired or holy books nor requiring them to be inerrant or infallible. He proposes four established criteria for assessing historical sources.
- Multiple, independent sources. Events which are reported by independent, and especially early, sources are likely to be historical.
- Dissimilarity. If a saying or event is different from prior Judaism and from later Christianity, it probably doesn’t derive from either one and so belongs to the historical Jesus.
- Sayings or events that would have been embarrassing or difficult for the Christian church are unlikely to have been invented and so are likely historical.
- Rejection and execution. Jesus’ crucifixion is so indisputably established as an anchor point in history that words and deeds of Jesus must be assessed in terms of their likelihood of leading to his execution as “King of the Jews.” A bland Jesus who just preached monotheism would never have provoked such opposition.
Dr Craig identifies three facts about Jesus.
- His Radical Self-Concept
The Qur’an says that Jesus thought of himself as no more than a human prophet who told people to worship the one, true God. Yet it can be shown that Jesus displayed a divine self-understanding. Take his claim to be the Son of Man. The criteria of multiple sources and dissimilarity show it belongs to the historical Jesus. The Jewish background of the expression lies in the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapter 7, Daniel sees a vision of a divine-human figure coming on the clouds of heaven to whom God will give everlasting authority, glory, and dominion. No mere human being could be accorded such status, for this would be to commit the sin which Muslims call shirk, attributing a property which properly belongs to God alone to someone else. Yet this is the status which Jesus claimed for himself.
Not only did Jesus claim to be the Son of Man, but he also thought of himself as the unique Son of God. This is highlighted in the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard (Mark 12: 1-9), which even the radical, sceptical critics in the so-called Jesus Seminar recognise as authentic. Or take Matthew 11.27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.”
- Jesus’s Trial and Crucifixion.
Jesus was condemned on the charge of blasphemy and then delivered to the Romans for execution for claiming to be King of the Jews. These facts are confirmed by independent biblical sources like Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, and also by extra-biblical sources.
The Jewish historian Josephus and the Syrian writer Mara bar Serapion state that the Jewish leaders made a formal accusation against Jesus. From Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus, we learn that Jesus was crucified by Roman authority under the sentence of Pontius Pilate.
According to L. T. Johnson, a New Testament historian at Emory University, “The support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps its co-agents, is overwhelming: Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned and executed by crucifixion.”
- Jesus’ Resurrection.
The majority of scholars who have written on this subject agree that three things happened:
- On the Sunday morning after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
- Different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead on multiple occasions.
- The disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their every predisposition to the contrary.
Dr Craig asserts that the best explanation of these three facts is that the disciples were right: God had raised Jesus from the dead.
On purely historical grounds, Dr Craig shows that (1) Jesus of Nazareth possessed a radical self-concept as the unique Son of God and the Son of Man, (2) he was tried, condemned, and crucified for this, and (3) God raised him from the dead.
In contrast, the Qur’an’s claims that Jesus thought of himself as a mere prophet preaching a blasé monotheism, that he was not crucified, and that he did not rise from the dead.
In other words, it denies the best established fact about Jesus, namely, his crucifixion (IV.157).
There not a single shred of evidence in favour of this hypothesis. At the same time, the evidence supporting Jesus’ crucifixion is, as L. T. Johnson affirms, “overwhelming.” Paula Frederickson, author of From Jesus to Christ, declares: “The crucifixion is the strongest single fact we have about Jesus” (Society of Biblical Literature meeting, November 22, 1999). Even the sceptical critics in the Jesus Seminar recognise the crucifixion of Jesus as an “indisputable fact” (Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar video).
This may not be surprising when you consider the Qur’an was written by a man living in Arabia 600 years after Jesus with no independent source of information.
As for Judaism, Dr Craig again states that the decisive consideration is Jesus’ claims to be the Jewish Messiah and his subsequent resurrection from the dead. Jewish scholars are coming to recognise the historical facts undergirding Jesus’ resurrection and are hard-pressed to explain those facts apart from the resurrection. In fact, the late Jewish theologian and Israeli historian Pinchas Lapide declared himself convinced that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. He also thought that Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah.
To sum up, Dr Craig defends Christianity as the true religion because it is the only faith to fully explain the historical evidence of Jesus. And so the cornerstone of our faith is a stumbling block and foolishness to others.