Within Christian ranks in the past 40 years or so there have been persistent attempts to recast the basic tenets of Christianity itself. One of the most remarkable of these has come from Tom Harpur, who noted in The Pagan Christ in 2004 that other cultures had myths about the dying and rising god, and therefore the early church just made up a myth about the dying and rising Jesus.
My sense is that Harpur is either not being true to himself or has somehow forgotten his theological studies as an Anglican priest. Every student of Christian theology is taught that the distinctiveness of the Jewish God was that this God acted in history. One of the most dramatic examples of this was when God liberated the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. God acted throughout Jewish history from the time of Abraham to the kings and prophets.
This experience of God acting in history simply continued in the most dramatic way of all when God became human in Jesus Christ. God acting in history was not a new idea that the early church made up. The church did not try to change a myth into a reality. Rather, it proclaimed that all the myths of other cultures suddenly became a reality when Christ was born. This was Paul’s basic approach when he told the Greeks and Romans that Jesus was their Unknown God.
It makes sense that God would not just tell us how to live, as God did in the Ten Commandments, but God would also show us how to live by becoming human. In Christ, God gave us a three-year audio-visual demonstration of what a true human being is and what God is really like.
There were many witnesses to the specialness of Jesus before, during, and after his life. First, there is the ancient scriptural record. Before the historical Jesus appeared, there were dozens of prophecies in the Jewish scriptures of what the Messiah would be like: royal, suffering, and divine. Jesus fulfilled all these prophecies, particularly the ones by the prophet Isaiah, who said that a child will be born who will be called “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father” and will have a kingdom without end (Isaiah 9: 6-8). This suffering servant will be “pierced for our sins,” but “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Then there is the vision of the prophet Daniel of a man who was led into the presence of God. God gave this man everlasting authority, sovereign power, and glory, and the people of every nation worshiped him (Daniel 7:13-14). There are many other Jewish prophecies like this.
During Christ’s life he gave great and sublime teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount, in which he focused in the Beatitudes on the nature of true happiness. The rest of Christ’s teachings also extended and completed the spirit of the Law and the Prophets.
Another witness is the astounding miracles: Jesus calming a raging sea, multiplying food for the hungry, healing all manner of illnesses, raising a man to life who had been dead for four days!
Even if we overlooked the miracles, there is the witness of the way Christ lived. His courage, integrity, wisdom, and compassion were so complete they must have had a supernatural source.
There is the witness of the appearances of Christ after his resurrection to hundreds of disciples, and there is the New Testament record of miracles performed in the name of Jesus by these disciples.
There is also the witness of people dying for their faith in Christ, the record of all the martyrs in the early church. No one would lay down their life for some mythical human being. Then there is the record of the ongoing growth of the church through the centuries, and of so many present-day martyrs.
Put all this together and one is almost forced to conclude that in Jesus something extremely special was going on. In fact, it all points to one reality: that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God. In the birth of Christ, God gave us the greatest gift of all: God in the form of a human being.
Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and author of God’s Ecstatic Love (Apocryphile Press, 2021). See www.brucetallman.com/books