A wonderful essay about the philosophical and intellectual importance of Jesus. Apologetic and profound. You should read this!
Edit: a little more browsing of the site this came off of, and I found that there are so many more great articles and essays. Scriptoriumdaily.com is the url.
Jesus: The Great Man
by John Mark Reynolds
One problem with being an atheist or a secularist is Jesus Christ. Losing Jesus is a big deal . . . rather like having a point of view that costs you Socrates, Newton, and Shakespeare. Now secularism does cost you agreement with the pious Socrates, the theist Newton, and the very Christian Shakespeare, but Jesus is the toughest loss of all. He is so marvelous in so many ways that a great many religions and even some secularists want a piece of him.
But just as you have to ignore Socrates piety, Newton’s writings on the Bible, and Shakespeare’s point of view to make them secular so you have to give up the best of Jesus to try to work him into your secular system, that is if you want to deny half of human experience and make everything matter and energy in mindless motion as secularists do.
Indeed, the best thing about being a Christian is Jesus Christ. We don’t have to water down his sayings, stories, or logic. We get him straight up. Now the response to this painful loss is often infantile attacks on Jesus. These usually fall into three categories: Jesus didn’t exist, Jesus said bad things, and Jesus was not very original.
First, the claim is made that Jesus did not exist. This is such a fringe view that it is worth pointing out that almost no serious secularist embraces it. We have letters from followers within a few decades of his life trying to explain his extraordinary life. By ancient world standards and given his social status, his life is amazingly documented. Of the four canonical gospels, we have partial manuscripts of the last one written (John) that date to the first half of the second century. Since it is not the original (!), most reasonable scholars (not just Christians) have put that account at the end of the first century. This places the earliest gospel (Mark) anywhere from 50-70 AD . . . well within the lifetimes of people who could have known Jesus.
People were writing about Jesus within the lifetime of the people who grew up with him and heard him speak.
Now it might be that they could get away with saying untrue things about him in the details, but making him up altogether? Critics of Christianity were numerous, they hated Jesus so much they killed him and his disciples. They argued as hard as they could against the new system of knowledge, but they never made the obvious winning claim that Jesus never existed.
Second, critics of Jesus will usually point to some “hard saying” of Jesus, interpret it in the most simplistic manner possible, and then claim Jesus was not “great.” Of course the existence of hard sayings does point to textual integrity, no monk or copyist got rid of them or “cleaned them up,” which undercuts another argument skeptics make, but the hard sayings do exist.
Jesus did talk about “unforgivable sins” and his soon return to Earth. What should be made of these difficult passages and others like them?
It would be more shocking if there were not “hard sayings” in Jesus than that there are. I know of no sophisticated thinker, ancient or modern, who does not have some cryptic arguments or conclusions. What is Plato saying about the Forms in his dialogue Parmenides? That is a riddle. Who or what is the “known unknown” of Socrates in Symposium? That’s hard too.
Critics evidently want Jesus to be so simplistic and platitudinous that there is no possibility of his being misunderstood. Jesus was dealing with difficult topics in a clever and meaningful way as this teaching demonstrates. He was not simplistic, but he was so profound that some of his sayings became platitudes!
This is no easy trick, Shakespeare comes to mind as the best English speaking example, but the argument does sometimes obscure the genius of Jesus. His genius is so much part of Western culture (like Shakespeare is in English) that when he is first heard the temptation is to dismiss him!
(I have had students start to say, “Romeo and Juliet? Why that is just West Side Story . . . oh.”)
This is also the case with the hard sayings. Because some of what Jesus says is so clear, it is disturbing when some of it is not.
I know of no great thinker (including Shakespeare) who is not exactly the same way. Hamlet’s problem is so obvious, until it isn’t! Then, sometimes to our frustration, Shakespeare makes us think. Jesus was exactly the same way.
Freshman students who do not want to work hard on their Plato will often try to dismiss “hard sayings” in Plato by saying, “He is just wrong.” or “He obviously contradicts himself.” At that point, they have to be taught the principle of charity in reading an author (don’t assume an error until you have dismissed other possibilities) and the improbability that the great author will make a blunder they see in a minute of reading.
Now great thinkers do blunder . . . and I am not here arguing for the infallibility of Jesus (though I believe it) . . . merely that most Internet skeptics don’t play by even normal scholarly rules of charity when it comes to Jesus.
Finally, critics will point out that great sayings of Jesus (such as the Golden Rule) have parallels in other great thinkers. Again, all great thinkers in ethics and religion tend to come to similar conclusions. Since truth exists this is not shocking. Indeed the greatest thinkers in the humanities tend to be similar in what they have to say. Sheer novelty may often of great value in science, but can be a mark of madness in the humanities!
Jesus, of course, put the deep truths (most of which can be found in many other thinkers) in a new context, including his exemplary life. There is also no evidence he directly “borrowed” most of his best ideas. It does not require “less intelligence” to discover (yourself) what Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha knew if you had no contact with their ideas.
It is a silly fault to uncover that one thinker said something like Jesus and then find another thinker who said something else like Jesus . . . and then not to notice that Jesus said both things while the other two thinkers said only one of those things. Jesus was so profound and so inclusive of great truths that it takes several other great thinkers to begin to match the prodigious output of his wisdom.
But all of this is merely to point out that critics honor Jesus by working to dismiss him and are spectacularly unsuccessful in doing so.
Of course, Jesus, like Socrates, wrote no books himself. Like Socrates, Jesus best students (or folk working for his students) wrote of him. We can glean something about Jesus nature (even discounting divine inspiration) by comparing what these bright students wrote, just as we can with Socrates. We know Socrates liked asking questions, for example, by noting people who wrote about Socrates often mention this feature of his life. We know Jesus liked asking provocative questions too in the same way.
What makes Jesus great?
Let’s list three things and then add a fourth for good measure.
First, Jesus was a great teacher. He was willing to walk with his students and hear them out when they were wrong. He could put things in a way that would confuse the “wise” who only wanted to use his words to hurt, but would reveal deep truths to the simple.
Second, Jesus was a great story teller. His story of the “prodigal son” and the loving father is a great example. It is told succinctly, but in a way so memorable that it has inspired great paintings, books, and films.
Third, Jesus was a great thinker and sage. I have already mentioned the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount, both of which would have been enough to make him remarkable. He also has the sublime, profound, and artistic teaching that begins at John 13>. It begins with a piece of performance art, washing his student’s feet, that symbolizes and enacts much of what he is going to say. He proceeds to take the Jewish passover service and illuminate in a new way.
All that is well and good, but the most interesting thing about Jesus is that he combined sublime human accomplishments with divinity.
He had power over the wind and waves, could heal, and rose from the dead. I do not believe these things merely because I wish to do so, but because the historic records report them and I have experience of Jesus alive in my own life. I have also seen his power in the life of others ranging from healing to transformed behavior.
So to say Jesus was a great man is true, but not enough. Jesus was also God. He was so remarkably God that his Jewish followers trained from childhood to resist such a conclusion were willing to proclaim this fact to a hostile world.
This means that Jesus is not just worthy of admiration, but worthy of a free person’s worship.