Introduction to Christology 101 — Who Is Jesus? And How Do We Know He’s Real?

Our answer to the question asked by Our Lord — “Who do men say that I am?” — changes everything for us.

Rogier van der Weyden, “The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning,” ca. 1460
Rogier van der Weyden, “The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning,” ca. 1460 (photo: Public Domain)

This is the third article in a multipart series; see the first and second articles here.

As we continue this guided study of Christology, the theological investigation of the person and natures of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, we need to address one question for which we need a firm answer: Is this man, Jesus of Nazareth, an actual historical figure?

There are still some people who question whether or not Jesus was actually a real person. For some of these writers, Jesus is just as fictional as the Greek, Roman or Norse gods. He was made up by the early Christians, by men like Paul of Tarsus, to be the center of this new religion, an offshoot of Judaism that eventually became acceptable to the Roman world and spread throughout the world in its wake.

There seems to be more and more “specials” on television that call into question the actual historical existence of Jesus. Notice that this questioning becomes more and more intense around the major feasts of our faith — the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) and the Resurrection of the Lord (Easter).

Yes, we have suffered through Dan Brown’s blatantly misinformed novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003) and the “Naked Archaeologist” Simcha Jacobovici’s pseudo-scientific documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus (2007). We have read the articles that come out occasionally in popular magazines and we can see these types of books in the religion section of Barnes and Noble.

But no one in his right mind can ever doubt that there was a man named Jesus from Nazareth who lived and who died. Biblical scholars and historians can date the epistles of St. Paul within 25 years of Jesus’s death and the earliest Gospel accounts within 40 years of Jesus’ death.

Now, the objection can come in that these scriptural accounts are documents of faith — yes, that is true. But they are also documents of history.

If we were to go simply to non-Christian sources, there are plenty of them as well:

  • A Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, writing in the year 93, mentioned the existence of Jesus.
  • Later, the Roman politicians Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, are explicit about the existence of a man named Jesus. In fact, Tacitus’ report on Jesus pretty much matches what the Gospels relate to us concerning the facts of Jesus’s life.
  • Even the Roman writers Lucian and Celsus write about Jesus, albeit negatively.

With all these facts at our disposal from the ancient Roman world (which was not pro-Christian to say the least!), we can say that it is absurd to doubt whether or not Jesus of Nazareth actually existed and to contend that he is an invention of the early Christians. 

Having established that Jesus is in fact a historical figure, we can read in Mark 8:27-30 that Our Lord Jesus himself asks a question to his disciples, one that each of us has to answer for ourselves: “Who do men say that I am?”

The answer to this question changes everything for us. If we say that this man, Jesus, is just a historical figure, someone in the past, then we can ignore him if we so choose. If we say that this man, Jesus, is just a wise and gentle teacher, then we can likewise ignore him, if we so choose.

But if we say that this man is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as St. Peter confesses here, then we must respond to him — either negatively by rejecting him and his teachings, or by totally, completely, utterly configuring our lives to him.

Who is Jesus? We have to look at the question both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, what does the Church teach about Jesus? Subjectively, what do I believe about Jesus? If I believe what the Church teaches, do I respond accordingly?

For our reading this week, I present the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. In his text, Mere Christianity (1952), Lewis presents his famous trilemma: 

“I am trying here 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 the 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 patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ...

“Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

For our reflection this week, perhaps we might wish to ponder the following question: How has the reality of this man who is God, Jesus of Nazareth, changed my life? What difference does the historical existence of Jesus matter to me?

In history and still to this day, there is a particular study that is called the “quest for the historical Jesus.” In our next entry to this series, we will briefly examine this quest, which most scholars divide into three periods, as well as a good Catholic response to these quests and what good we might possibly glean from these quests, using Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as our primary guide.