ORIGINALITY OF JESUS CHRIST
There are those who maintain that nothing in Christianity is original; and that, therefore, Christianity is just another one of the religions of man. Here are a few suggestions concerning this challenge to Christianity.
The effort to find “parallels” to Christ—with reference to the virgin birth—was dealt with in a paper we distributed earlier. (Thomas Boslooper, “Jesus Virgin Birth and Non-Christian ‘Parallels’”, Religion in Life, Winter, l956-57, pp. 87-97).
God made Himself known to man in the beginning of human history. Some of the original revelations of God to man may well have been handed down throughout the generations, although often covered over to varying degrees by the traditions of man. (William Meade, The Bible and the Classics. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1890).
It may have been that some nations were influenced by the patriarchs and by the law, as these nations came into contact—directly or indirectly—with God’s people.
Romans 2 seems to indicate that man has the power to make some moral discernments. After all, if there is moral law men should be able to see something of its working in human society. Consequences of transgression of moral law should manifest themselves in society and character. Selfishness does certain things to a character regardless of his race or of the period in which he lived.
Christ did not claim that all that He said was original. He fulfilled the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-18). Christ did not say that no other people had any truth. The Gospel presupposes that man has had some truth and has transgressed (Romans 1:18-32).
If Christ had been completely original, He would have had to omit every truth which was revealed or discerned before His day.
Why should one think that Christ’s teaching and work should be utterly unrelated to man’s needs, hopes and aspirations? It is but natural that pagan religions should reflect these needs, hopes and aspirations. These religions are in part an effort to satisfy at least some of these needs of man. It would be an indication that Christianity was not true if it did not deal with these needs, hopes and aspirations. See Richard C. Trench, Hulsean Lectures. Section on Christ, The Desire of All Nations.
Christ is to be evaluated not only by what He taught, but by what He left out. Sometimes some of us are shown to be unwise because we do not stop talking soon enough. Just so, pagan religious leaders and philosophers included many things which are wrong. For example, “In Greece the dignity of married life was very inadequately appreciated: even Socrates invites the courtesan Aspasia to talk with him ‘as to how she might ply her occupation with more profit.’” (James Hastings, Editor, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Vol. II, p. 834).
There are similarities between a man and a donkey, but we mis-represent man if we do not see the differences. As a Frenchman might say: Long live the differences!
In the discussion by G. Wauchope Stewart, in which there are some good ideas, on “Originality” in James Hastings, Editor, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Vol. II, p. 290 we find the following on parallels between Christ’s teaching and that of the Rabbis.
“One may dismiss this evidence against the originality of Christ in the words of Wellhausen (I.J.G2), ‘Jewish scholars think that all that Jesus said is found in the Talmud. Yes, all, and a good deal more. The originality of Jesus consists in this, that He had the feeling for what was true and eternal amid a chaotic mass of rubbish, and that He enunciated it with the greatest emphasis.’ No doubt there are occasional parallels to the words of Christ to be found in the Talmud, but there is a vast amount in the Talmud to which no parallel can be found in the preaching of Christ, for it falls lamentably short of the lofty spiritual tone which characterizes every utterance of the Saviour. Even if it be the case that we can find something corresponding to every clause of the Lord’s Prayer in the Jewish Liturgy, it might still be maintained that there was originality in selecting precisely these petitions and bringing them together in such a brief and simple prayer. But indeed we are not much concerned to defend the originality of the Lord’s Prayer. Christ’s object was not to teach His disciples some new form of prayer, but to give expression to the deepest longings of the human heart; and it would be strange if these cravings had not already found utterance in some measure in the prayers of His fellow-Countrymen. When we turn to the parallels which have been traced between sayings of Christ and quotations from the Jewish Rabbis, it will be found, on examination, that in many cases they are not so striking as they appear at first sight. For instance, the saying of Hillel which has been often quoted as an anticipation of the Golden Rule of Christ really falls far short of it. Hillel merely warns us against doing to others what we would not that they should do to us. One might conform to that maxim on grounds of selfishness. At best it requires only that we do no evil. But Christ’s maxim is positive. It insists not merely that we do no evil, but that we do good, and can be carried out only by one who has his heart full of love for his brother. And, further, with regard to the parallels we must ask what place the quotations occupy in the respective writings from which they are taken. Quotations from the Talmud which have a striking resemblance to some words of Christ may prove, when we consider the context in which they occur, to bear a different meaning from what they assume when put into juxtaposition with similar words of Christ, or may lose a great deal of the impressiveness which attaches to them when regarded as isolated utterances. Upon the whole, we conclude that little weight is to be placed upon the occasional parallels which have been found in the words of the Jewish Rabbis to sayings of Christ. The general spirit of the Rabbinical teaching is very different from Christ’s. When sayings are found which seem to approach to the teaching of Christ, they are rather to be regarded as isolated utterances which rise for the moment above the general level of Rabbinical theology.”
C. G. Montefiore: “As a matter of fact, so far as the Rabbinic parallels are concerned they are usually a good deal later,” (Liberal Judaism (Macmillan, 1918), p. 93). He also wrote: “I am inclined to believe that both Jews and Christians have sometimes been a little unfair as regards this question, the former is unduly depreciating the originality of Jesus, the latter is unduly exalting it. As against Jewish critics it is only right to remember that most of the parallels which the industry of scholars has culled from the Rabbinical literature were undoubtedly spoken, as well as written down, after Jesus and not before him, priority is therefore his. But a far more important point is that the teaching of Jesus must be regarded as a whole, both in what he says and in what he does not say. Its originality is not only to be found in its separate sentences and teachings, but in its general character, its spirit, its atmosphere. Some would add that its originality is in that very note of authority of which we have to speak by and by.” (Some Elements in the Religious Teaching of Jesus. Macmillan, 1910).
Some of the parallels to Rabbinic writings may be cases where Christ was the first to utter these things.
The parallel should not be stressed while the vast differences are ignored. Max Muller was an authority on pagan religions: “‘I make no secret’, writes Max Muller, in his Lectures on the Science of Religion, ‘that true Christianity, I mean the religion of Christ, seems to me to become more and more exalted the more we know and the more we appreciate the treasures of truth hidden in the despised religions of the world’. (Introduction of the Science of Religion, 12 mo, 1873, p. 37). Indeed, more significantly still, remembering the tone of some of his earlier essays, Max Muller commenced his preface to the Sacred Books of the East by saying, —and the words are deserving of emphasis: —‘Readers who have been led to believe that the Vedas of the ancient Brahmans, the Avesta of the Zoroastrians, the Tripitaka of the Buddhists, the Kings of Confucius, or the Koran of Mohammad are books full of primeval wisdom and religious enthusiasm, or at least of sound and simple moral teaching, will be disappointed in consulting these volumes (of sacred books). Looking at many of the books that have lately been published on the religions of the ancient world, I do not wonder that such a belief should have been raised; but I have long felt that it was high time to dispel such illusions, and to place the study of the ancient religions of the world on a more real and sound, more truly historical basis. It is but natural that those who write on ancient religions, and who have studied them from translations only, not from original documents, should have had eyes for their bright rather than for their dark sides. The former absorb all the attention of the student, the latter, as they teach nothing, seem hardly to deserve any notice. Scholars also who have devoted their life either to the editing of original texts or to the careful interpretation of some of the sacred books, are more inclined, after they have disinterred from a heap of rubbish some solitary fragments of pure gold, to exhibit these treasures only, than to display all the rubbish from which they had to extract them. . . . They have raised expectations that cannot be fulfilled, fears also that, as will be easily seen, are unfounded’. (Sacred Books of the East, Vol. i. 1879, pp. ix., x.)” (Alfred Cave, An Introduction to Theology, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 38 George street, 1886. pp. 169, 170).
Other systems are to be judged not only by the truth which they contain, but by the truth which they left out and which Jesus included.
They are also to be judged by the error which they included. Regardless of what understanding of moral truth we find elsewhere, in Christ we find the perfect synthesis. Christ embodies all the moral good that is found in any other system.
Christ heightened some principles. Love was taught in the Old Testament, but Christ made it new by giving it a new standard, i.e. as I have loved you (John 13:34).
Christ places morality on a firm, authoritative basis—God’s character and revealed will. It is one thing for a philosopher or moralist to point out some good moral idea; it is another to show that these have authority over human life, since they are rooted in the will of God. We are accountable to God and must face Him in judgment. Pagans might speculate on immortality. Christ brings it to light through His resurrection.
Christ furnishes the highest degree of motivation. Lecky, a non-Christian, spoke of Christ as not only presenting the highest ideals, but also of furnishing the greatest motivation to their accomplishment.
“It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has filled the hearts of men with an impassioned love; and has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; and has not only been the highest pattern of virtue, but the highest incentive to its practice; and has exerted so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers, and than all the exhortations of moralists. This has been the wellspring of whatever is best and purest in the Christian life. Amid all the sins and failings, amid all the priestcraft, the persecution, and fanaticism which have defaced the church, it has preserved in the character and example of its Founder an enduring principle of regeneration.” (“History of European Morals.”).
Christ was not simply a teacher of morality. As Samuel Harris wrote: “A second reply is that Jesus was not distinctively a teacher of philosophy or of ethics, nor even a lawgiver; but he was the Redeemer of the world. . . . He comes to redeem men from sin and guilt, of which they are already conscious. He presupposes and takes up into his teaching any religious and moral truths acknowledged in the religions and philosophies of the world; but he himself is the Redeemer, bringing God’s love into human history as an energy of redeeming grace, making propitiation for sin, and quickening sinners into the life of faith and love. He speaks the word of promise and of hope to man, quickens in sinful humanity the germinant forces of a new and spiritual life, establishes his kingdom of righteousness, and sets humanity forth in a progress to realize the ideals of moral and spiritual perfection both in the life of the individual and the civilization of society. To whatever extent it may be possible consistently with historical facts to demonstrate an agreement between Christianity and the religions and philosophies of the world, the demonstration has no force against the distinctive claim of Christianity to divine origin and authority.
“The English writers of the last century on the evidences of Christianity, in urging the superior morality of the New Testament, sometimes wrote as if they regarded Christianity as simply a system of ethics. They thus unwittingly admitted rationalism into the very defenses of Christianity and betrayed their position to their adversaries; they invited the objection under consideration and others of a similar character, which have no force against Christianity as an historical redemption.” (“The Kingdom of Christ on Earth,” Yale Theological Seminary, October 24, l874, by Harris, pages 47,48).
Christ Himself is new. What Christianity has that other religions do not have is Christ Himself. The world’s only true Christ and Savior. Even many unbelievers have admitted that He is unique. See the lesson “Christ, the Light of the World.” Christ’s originality is also found in the fact that He lived up to what He taught. He furnishes us with the perfect example.
Robert E. Hume in The World’s Living Religions (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), thought that three distinctive features of Christianity are: “(l) The character of God as a loving Heavenly Father; (2) The character of the founder as Son of God and brother of all men; and (3) the work of a divine, universal Holy Spirit.” (Review by R. L. Hunt in International Journal of Religious Education, January, 1960, p. 41).
Of the New Testament doctrine of love, Hughes wrote: “It is worth mentioning that only in Christianity do we find assurance and certainty that love is at the heart of the universe, and that the whole world to adapt Tennyson’s words, is bound by gold chains to the heart of a Father. Science has little or nothing to say on this point, for its interpretation of the world is always in terms of force. Philosophy stammers here and gives forth no certain sound, for the problem of evil and of pain dogs the steps of all philosophical discussion and casts its dark shadow over most of its efforts and its hopes. This is why pessimism and doubt hold such a place in so many philosophical systems.
“It can be said also that the other world religions yield us no certainty on this point, for they either ignore the problem of evil regarding it as unreal or an illusion, as in the Indian religions, or they end in pessimism, the logical conclusion of which can only be the destruction of desire and of life as in Buddhism. We have to admit that Greek religion appears to have been healthy-minded as well as making for grace and beauty of bodily form. It was redolent of the fresh air and the sunshine, and in its feasts there were games and various other expressions of the joy of living. This, however, was only true of the national religion which was at this time little more than loyalty to the city state and had no spiritual power, as Professor Gilbert Murray has shown. The deeper element in Greek religion was represented by Orphism, which was an attempt to reform and purify the Old Dionysian warship. There was a deep strain of pessimism in Orphism and we and we find this heritage in Plato, in his insistence on the body as a prison house, or even the tomb of the Spirit, as well as in the idea of an endless cycle of rebirth, from which there was no real release.
“In none of the old world religions was there assurance that the universe was good at its core and that love held the sovereignty over all. This we have only in Christianity, where Jesus’ idea of the divine fatherhood with its perpetual self-giving, comes to its completion and to its fullest revelation, dramatically and in reality, in the death of Christ on the cross. Here we see love transforming evil to good, and redeeming by the offering of itself. In this alone is there sure and certain guarantee that the universe means well. Margaret Fuller is said to have asked the Sphinx: ‘Tell me, O Sphinx, is the universe kind?’ There is no assured affirmative answer to that question anywhere except in Christianity.” (Thomas Hywel Hughes, Psychology and Religious Truth. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1942. pp. 23-25).
“Only of Christ Among all the Founders of a World Religion is ‘Resurrection Claimed”!
“In considering the resurrection of Christ, we should remember that for only the founder of the Christian faith is an empty tomb claimed. Of the four great religions of the world resting directly upon personalities (rather than upon some philosophical system) the Christian religion is the only one that even talks about an empty tomb in relation to its founder. Abraham, the father of Judaism, died somewhere about 1900 B.C., but no resurrection has ever been claimed for him. In fact, his tomb has been most carefully preserved, for almost four millennia, in Hebron, in southern Palestine, now covered with a Mohammedan mosque, recognized by almost all authorities in the field of biblical history as being the burial place of the great patriarch. The original accounts of Buddha never ascribe to him any such thing as a resurrection; in fact, in the earliest accounts of his death, namely, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, we read that when the Buddha died it was “with that utter passing away in which nothing whatever remains behind.” One of the outstanding modern authorities on Buddhism, Professor Childers, says, “There is no trace in the Pali scriptures or commentaries (or so far as I know in any Pali book) of Sakya Muni having existed after his death or appearing to his disciples.” Mohammad died June 8, 632 A.D. at the age of sixty-one, at Medina, where his tomb is annually visited by thousands of devout Mohammedans. All the millions and millions of Jews, Buddhists, and Mohammedans agree that their founders have never come up out of the dust of the earth in resurrection.
Faith in the resurrection of Christ is acknowledged to be the primary cause of the phenomenal growth and power of the early church. That it was faith in the resurrection of Christ, and the preaching of this stupendous truth, that gave the early church its power to win thousands, and then millions, of idolatrous citizens of the great Roman Empire for Christ, though vast multitudes of them in confessing their faith knew they were dooming themselves to torture, is recognized among all who have given any careful consideration to the intricate, difficult problems of the establishment of the Christian church in the Roman world. Even the rationalist, Dr. Guignebert, in his volume, Jesus, in the famous History of Civilization series, who undertakes to deny everything of a supernatural nature in the life of our Lord, including, of course, His resurrection, is forced to make the following confession, “There would have been no Christianity if the belief in the resurrection had not been founded and systematized. . . . The whole of the soteriology and the essential teaching of Christianity rests on the belief of the Resurrection, and on the first page of any account of Christian dogma must be written as a motto, Paul’s declaration: ‘And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.’ From the strictly historical point of view, the importance of the belief in the resurrection is scarcely less. . . . By means of that belief, faith in Jesus and in His mission became the fundamental element of a new religion which, after separating from, became the opponent of Judaism, and set out to conquer the world.” (A Great Certainty . . . In this Hour of World Crisis, By Wilbur M. Smith. The Geddes’ Press. Pasadena, Calif. 1949, pp. 23, 24).
J. D. Bales
James D. Bales was a long time professor at Harding University. He wrote extensively in the field of Apologetics during the 20th century, and was a recognized expert on Marxism. He served as moderator for Dr. Thomas B. Warren during his monumental 1976 debate on the existence of God with Dr. Antony Flew.
This article is from the files of J. D. Bales is published here without editing.