Questions Surrounding “The Passion of the Christ”/Program 4

By: Dr. Darrell Bock; ©2000
Can we all own a little bit of Jesus, and disagree in the end on who He is?



Today on The John Ankerberg Show: Questions surrounding Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. It usually refers to the last twelve hours of Christ’s earthly life, from His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to His death on the Cross. Some critics question the historical reliability of the movie, but their greater fear seems to be that Gibson has succeeded far too well.

How did a realistic movie about Jesus get to be so controversial? What is the point of the film? Is it historically accurate? How does it answer the question, “Who killed Jesus?” Is the film “anti-Semitic”? What are the artistic liberties taken in the film? Why did Jesus have to die and did He really rise from the dead?

My guests today answering these questions are some of the most prominent scholars in the world. They include : Dr. Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; Dr. N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in England; Dr. Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary; Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor at Talbot School of Theology; Dr. Craig Blomberg, Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary; and Dr. Gary Habermas, Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy, Liberty University.

We invite you to join us.

Ankerberg: Welcome. We’re talking about the questions raised by Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. As the popularity of this movie grows, a lot of commentators are trying to appease Christians by saying something like this: “Jesus is for everybody. For the Jewish people, Jesus is a Jew. For Christians, He’s the Son of God. For Muslims, He’s an honored prophet. So we can all respect Jesus, and we can all own a little piece of Him.” But they will always add, “In the end, I don’t think that we’ll be able to totally agree on who Jesus is.” I asked eight of the top historians, theologians and archaeologists in the world if they agreed with this kind of thinking, and I’d like to begin with Dr. Darrell Bock. He was asked by ABC and NBC to appear on their programs as a historical and theological expert regarding Jesus. I asked him, “Can we all own a little bit of Jesus, and disagree in the end on who He is?” Listen to what he said:
Bock: Well, in one sense, the statement is correct. There are pieces of Jesus that belong to various religious traditions in one way or another. But the real question is: Is that the real Jesus? And what Christianity is claiming is that Jesus made unique claims about who He was. He doesn’t leave people in the position of saying that He’s a “great religious teacher” or that He’s “just a prophet.” If He’s just a prophet, that’s not enough in terms of the way He presented Himself. He presented Himself, His favorite name for Himself, was “Son of Man.” This is a human figure who also has divine authority. The image comes out of the book of Daniel. This is someone who exercises the final judgment. This is someone who rides the clouds like the gods. This is someone, to use other passages that Jesus alluded to, Psalm 110:1, is going to end up at the right hand of the Father. This is not your everyday prophet. This is a unique figure that we’re talking about.
And Jesus doesn’t leave us in the place where many people who evaluate Jesus want to put Him. They don’t want to play Jesus down. They don’t way to say He’s a liar and misled us. They want to communicate their respect for Jesus. And I think there’s an element of that that we can appreciate and understand. But if you just make Jesus a prophet, you’ve missed out on the most important things that He has claimed about Himself, and your view of Jesus falls short. And that’s why Christians insist that in talking about Jesus as the Son of God, they’re not saying He’s one among many, they are saying, “He is one of a kind.” And that’s what people have to appreciate about the claims of the Christian faith. It’s hard for our culture to hear. It would be a lot easier in some ways if Jesus was one guy among the many. But He’s not. He’s one of a kind, and we have to process Him as one of a kind or we don’t take Him on His own terms.

Ankerberg: Now, in almost any discussion about Mel Gibson’s movie, you’ll hear some critics say, “Jesus was killed for political reasons.” Others will say, “No. He was killed for religious reasons.” Both will claim they base their answer on Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God. Was Jesus a political revolutionary who was speaking out against the Romans? Did this have to do with the religious authority of the Jewish leaders? Listen as five scholars respond to this question:
Bock: Everyone who used the term used it to say, “God will one day comprehensibly rule this earth and will vindicate His saints.” It always had that meaning. But around it, there were different conceptions of how that would work. Would that be Israel defeating her enemies? Would that be some great transcendent ruler coming almost, if you will, from above? A combination of those? And so when Jesus used the term, people understood basically what He meant.
Evans: Well, I think Jesus gave His own spin to “kingdom of God” because He personalized it. It’s right here, it’s in your midst. And when He casts out a demon or heals someone, it’s evidence that the kingdom of God has come powerfully right within the human sphere. And that was new. People had not heard of that before.
Wright: He thought that He was a prophet announcing the Kingdom of God. Not just announcing it in the sense that it might happen in a day or a week or a year, but saying “It’s happening now under your noses.” This was His prophetic message. And He not only said it, He did it with the symbolic actions of healing and feasting and so on. And that’s why He got into trouble, because people didn’t like it.
Ankerberg: According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God was present, but not yet complete. In Him, it had arrived in power, but would be fully consummated in the future.
Witherington: When you say, “I, by the finger of God cast out demons; if I do that, you’ll know that the dominion of God has happened in your midst.” He’s talking about a real physical healing, a real person who has now been set free, saved, by the saving redemptive act of God. This is involving real people in real time. It’s not just what happens when you die and go to be with God. So, clearly enough, there’s an “already” dimension to the kingdom of God right here in space and time, and there’s also a “not yet” dimension to the kingdom of God in the future.
Ankerberg: Jesus also said that immediate entrance into the Kingdom of God was available to all who would turn from their sins and put their faith in Him.
Dr. Claire Pfann: He is talking first and foremost about the rule of God in men’s hearts. And quite secondarily, and far off in human history in the future, there will be an earthly reign. But, for the time being, what God wants to do is to conquer that most unruly of all items in the universe, the individual human heart.

Ankerberg: Did Jesus give enough information that, if the political leaders had heard it, He would have been in trouble?
Bock: Yes, but I think that the reality was that Jesus wasn’t a powerful enough figure from the way secular power is perceived to be a worry to the Romans. He didn’t have an army; He wasn’t a threat from that standpoint. He was much more threatening to the Jewish leadership. And the reason He was threatening to the Jewish leadership is He was redefining and reconstituting how Judaism should operate. And, that was a challenge to their direct control over the religious authority that they possessed.
Witherington: I do think it’s right to say that there is a political edge to the phrase, “the dominion of God.” When you say “God is the ruler of the world,” you are implying the Emperor is not God, and he is not the ruler of the world. And whatever human rulers they are, they would be under the rule of God and they should not be making divine claims. So I think there is a political edge to this. But we must not miss the spiritual heart of the significance of this either.
Bock: There’s no doubt that Jesus said things that challenged the way the culture was operating and the way the cultural tended to operate. He said things that impacted the abuse of power, the oppression, the way in which people on the fringe were ignored. I think all those things fit into Jesus’ preaching. He got up in the synagogue and said, you know, “I came to preach good news to the poor.” So, there were things in what Jesus said that were socially revolutionary from a cultural standpoint.
But here’s the rest of the story that they’re not telling you, and that is that when John the Baptist announced that the Messiah was coming, he said, “I baptize with water but He is going to baptize with the Spirit of God.” The way you know that Messiah is coming, John the Baptist was saying, is, “He’s going to bring the One who’s going to bring the work of God within the person and within and amongst people in a way that it hasn’t existed previously.” That’s going to be a new kind of baptism, a new kind of era, a new kind of community, a new way of living.
That’s what the Kingdom of God is fundamentally about. And what’s interesting is that the Kingdom of God is not fundamentally about political power. The Kingdom of God is fundamentally about relating to God in a healthy way and, as a result, being able to relate to others in a healthy way. That’s what the Kingdom of God ultimately is.

Ankerberg: Now, one of the more controversial figures in Mel Gibson’s movie is Judas. Some liberal theologians like John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar claim that Judas is a completely fictional character and didn’t actually exist. Others will say the writers of the Gospels put him into their stories to express an anti-Semitic viewpoint. I asked Dr. Darrell Bock what he thought about such statements. And second, “How were the Gospels written? And by whom? And when?”

Ankerberg: We’ve talked about Judas, but there are some scholars who say Judas was made up to be anti-Semitic. Again, they’re trying to work this anti-Semitic idea into the Gospels; that Judas was sort of a typical quintessential Jew. What would you say to that?
Bock: I really think that the discussion about Judas may be the most ludicrous element of this discussion! Judas is a real figure. He was one of the Twelve. He betrayed Jesus. There’s no rhyme or reason for the Church making up a figure of Judas and having Jesus as the Son of God choose someone who would betray Him if that were fantasy. The reason that detail is in the text is because it happened.
Ankerberg: I heard Aaron Brown on CNN, and I’ve also heard other commentators, use Albert Schweitzer’s quote about Jesus: “We all find the Jesus that we want, because we know so little about him.” And then they go off the air. That’s just not true! Tell us why.
Bock: Well, at the time when Albert Schweitzer was writing, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to a certain degree it was true. We knew a lot less about Judaism. We didn’t have the Dead Sea Scrolls. We didn’t have a Nag Hammadi in the early Church finds. And so, as a result of that, we did suffer from a lack of information. But the last 50 years have really allowed us to focus on the background of Judaism. Now, it is true that everybody, to some degree, is reconstructing their understanding of Jesus based upon the sources. That’s true. But we know a lot about it. In fact, Schweitzer’s point was, even when he was writing—and this is what they’re not telling you—is that, if you study Jesus in context, you can begin to make sense out of Him. And that’s what has been done in the last 50 years. We’re understanding more and more who Jesus is, and we’re actually getting our hands around the biblical portraits in a clearer way; because we not only understand what the Gospels are telling us, but we also understand the religious, historical and cultural context that Jesus was addressing. We know a lot more about the people He was talking to and what they thought, and that helps us to understand Him better.

Ankerberg: Take us through how the Gospel writers came to write their books and how they put them together, because modern scholarship is confusing so many people out there, and so many funny kinds of statements are being made. You can do this for the people, so let’s slow it down. First of all, who were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? When did they write their books? And how did they go about doing it? What standards today should we hold them accountable to?
Bock: Well, the four writers of the Gospels are people who either were directly involved with Jesus, or people who were right next to people directly involved with Jesus. For Matthew and for John, these are two of the apostles. Now, some less conservative people think that Matthew and John didn’t write these Gospels, that their “schools” did. And let’s, for the sake of argument, even accept that argument. Even if their schools wrote these Gospels, it would still be the case that these schools would have been in touch with what these guys taught and said. That’s important: their apostolic roots to the Jesus tradition, including eyewitness roots. Mark is traditionally associated in all the early Church materials with the preaching of Peter, so you couldn’t get a better eyewitness or a more intimate person involved with Jesus then Peter. Luke is tied through his association to Paul as well as probably one of the most well circulated Gospel writers in terms of having exposure to the others. So these are where the Gospel writers got their material from.
You also have the tradition, the oral tradition, because, remember, we’re not in a book culture; we’re not in a written culture. We’re in an oral culture in which these stories would have been passed on. And within Judaism there was an element of memory in the culture. They worked on how to pass on things. Now, they didn’t always do it exactly word for word. Sometimes they’d bring out a nuance or an implication of what someone said, and that’s why you get some differences of wording in the sayings of Jesus and that kind of thing. But they’re all getting at the gist of what Jesus taught. They all would have known what He was about and what it was He was fundamentally trying to say. And that’s why, when you look at the core of what the Gospels teach and present, they’re presenting the same Jesus and He’s saying fundamentally the same thing.
Ankerberg: F. F. Bruce at Manchester, before he died, wrote a book, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? He used to talk about the fact that these books came out at a time when the people that were hostile to Jesus when Jesus was living and they were still alive. Is that true, that these came out when the generation of those that were both hostile to Jesus and those that loved Jesus could look at the information in these books?
Bock:Yes. And one of the statements that is probably the most misleading that I’ve almost heard repeated like a mantra in these shows is, “The Gospels were written 30 to 50 years after the time of Jesus.” Now, that’s true. There’s debate about when the Gospels were exactly written. Some people will put them in the late 50s, early 60s, at least for Matthew, Mark and Luke, and put John in the 90s. Others will move all the Gospels until after AD 70 with the last one being in 90 [AD], so you are talking about a 30 to 50 year period that scholars generally do talk about, whether they’re conservative or not. But that’s within the lifetime of these people, within the lifetime of the opponents. And by ancient standards, that is a very short time.
And the other thing that they’re not telling is, they’re written in the context of a culture that is used to passing on tradition. The passing on of traditions was something Jews were famous for doing and had honed to a skill. And that’s what you see coming into the gospel tradition and into the Gospels. They aren’t making stuff up out of whole cloth. They aren’t inventing stories. They are presenting different elements and different points of view of who Jesus is and what He said and why He said it. And sometimes they’re looking at it at this angle, and sometimes they’re looking at that angle. But when you boil it all down and put it all together, what Jesus is saying about His mission, about the Kingdom of God, about who He is, is a very unified portrait in which He presents Himself as the unique messenger of God.

Ankerberg: Now, some of the critics on television and in newspaper and magazines articles have come right out and said that there is no archaeological evidence and very little secular historical evidence that supports what the Gospel writers say. Well, such statements are just not true. To prove it, I’d like you to listen to some of the top Jewish archaeologists in Israel, as well as to Dr. Craig Evans, who is co-editor of the Dictionary of New Testament Background, which is a compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. I asked them if they thought that the Gospel accounts are supported by archaeological and other non-Christian historical evidence. Listen:

Ankerberg: We spoke about the historical accuracy of these books with respected Jewish archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay, who recently was awarded the prize for archaeology in Israel. As an archeologist do you think that the writers of the New Testament anchored their stories in real historical events, real historical things that you’ve discovered in the past?
Dr. Gabriel Barkay: Yes, I do. I think that much of the evidence of the Gospels mirrors a reality of 1st century of the Common Era.
Ankerberg: Then, we also talked to Dr. Magen Broshi, former curator of the Shrine of the Book, Israel’s museum containing the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is a world-renowned archaeologist and scholar, having excavated the most recent discoveries of caves at Qumran.
Dr. Magen Broshi: I mean, the setting is absolutely accurate. Absolutely accurate. The geography is accurate. The mode of living, I mean, they couldn’t have invented it and they didn’t have any need to invent anything.
Evans: We can actually go to the place. It’s a real place. It isn’t some fairy-tale land somewhere. It isn’t King Arthur and his round table. We can actually go some place and say, “This is where it all happened. In fact, look. We’ve actually dug up the very pavement where He walked.” Things like that can be found.
Ankerberg: Respected Jewish archaeologist Dr. Hillel Geva has worked on some of the most important archaeological excavations in Jerusalem since 1967. He is editor of the leading Hebrew journal on biblical archaeology in Israel.
Dr. Hillel Geva: The New Testament is a very authentic, historical book. I mean, no doubt there is history in it: real history and authentic history in the book.
Dr. Magen Broshi: So this is, as I say, a time when there was still quite a number of eyewitnesses, of people that knew about the events first hand, and there is absolutely no fiction there. They are not historical novellas. They are as far as accurate as they could have done.
Ankerberg: Archaeologists have confirmed that Luke was so accurate that he cited facts about 32 countries, 54 cities, 9 islands, several rulers, and he never made one mistake.

Ankerberg: Okay, one last thing, and that is this: People want to know, what is this thing about “putting faith” in Jesus? That doesn’t necessarily transpire into something they understand. They’re not sure what that word “faith” means. Maybe we need to use a couple of other words to define what that means. Then, how do you start some kind of a “relationship” with Jesus? What’s that all about?
Bock: I think faith in Jesus is fundamentally about trust, entering into a relationship with God, a trusting relationship with God, in which I say, “I understand what You are saying to me about who I am; about the fact that I’m a creature; that I am responsible to a Creator; that I don’t always live up to my obligations as a creature, and that You have re-entered that relationship through Jesus Christ and said: ‘Let Me take you by the hand and show you the way.’” Trusting Jesus is taking Jesus by the hand and letting Him show us the way of how to truly live. That’s what faith in Jesus is all about. It’s saying, “I understand His work took my place, but more than that, I understand that God is inviting me into a life of relationship with Him in which my life is given over to honoring the Creator God with the way that I live, the way that I treat others, and the way that I honor Him. That’s faith in Jesus.

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