Assessing Jesus Christ—Newsweek Straddles the Fence
As the greater population within Christendom reflects upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus during the widely celebrated holiday of Easter, many-a-popular news magazine sees fit to direct its attention to those subjects as well. Leading the pack this year, Newsweek’s March 28, 2005, cover picture portrays a nail-pierced version of the Christ, behind the bold article title, “How Jesus Became Christ.” The nine-page article, written by Jon Meacham, addresses some probing issues regarding the life of Jesus.
Upon reading the article, one immediately is struck by the fact that Mr. Meacham is willing to grant both the skeptic and the “believer” certain points in the discussion. For instance, it seems he believes that Jesus Christ did in fact rise from the grave. He wrote: “Without the Resurrection, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Jesus movement of the first decades of the first century would have long endured” (145:43-44). Meacham also commented: “As a matter of history, however, scholars agree that the two oldest pieces of New Testament tradition speak to Jesus’ rising from the dead” (p. 45). He further noted: “The uniqueness—one could say oddity or implausibility—of the story of Jesus’ resurrection argues that the tradition is more likely historical than theological” (p. 47). Apparently, Meacham believes that the stories regarding the resurrection of Jesus were centered squarely on historical fact.
At first glance, this admission by Meacham might come as welcome news to those who believe that the New Testament accounts are the inspired Word of God. As one continues to read the article, however, it becomes clear that Meacham does not regard the New Testament writings as a divine product. In fact, Meacham mentioned several statements recorded in the gospel accounts, and then commented: “But how much of this is remembered history, and how much heartfelt but unhistorical theology? It is impossible to say” (p. 48). In an attempt to confirm the resurrection, yet at the same time cast doubt upon the New Testament records, he wrote: “Most likely the post-Resurrection stories represent different traditions within the nascent faith. The contrasting details do not help the Christian case on logical grounds, but the Gospel renderings do affirm that the tomb was empty, and that believers thought the resurrected Jesus had appeared to some of them for a time” (p. 45).
So what was Mr. Meacham trying to do with this article? Of course, it would be impossible to know for sure the exact motive(s) behind the article, but his last statement is quite telling. After bringing up several questions that he claimed will always linger, he quoted a passage from the apostle Paul, and concluded his remarks by saying, “wise words for all of us, whatever our doubts, whatever our faith.” It appears, then, that Meacham is simply attempting to appeal to those of all stripes and faiths by granting the validity of certain New Testament statements, while distancing himself from the idea that other statements made in the accounts are accurate or factual. In other words, Meacham appears to be straddling the fence.
Therefore, in response to the article, several facts should be brought to light. First, it is a fact that the New Testament writings are inspired and completely accurate in every statement they make, including all references to historical statements made by Jesus (see Thompson, 2003; Lyons 2002). Any attempt to pick and choose which passages are, or are not, based on historically accurate details falls into a hopeless, subjective exercise of arbitrariness not based on an accurate assessment of the text.
Second, the gospel accounts that detail the resurrection of Christ do, in fact, include different details. They are not, however, “contrasting details” that represent “different traditions within the nascent faith.” The differing details not only are reconcilable, but also present evidence that the writers of the accounts did not engage in collusion in order to fabricate the story (see Butt, 2002).
Third, it seems that one of Meacham’s major misunderstandings is the nature of certain New Testament ideas. For instance, in regard to Christ’s atoning role as viewed by the New Testament writers, he commented that “a sacrificial, atoning role is precisely the one the first followers of Jesus believed he had played in the world” (p. 44). He then asked: “Where did this interpretation of Jesus’ mission come from?” In answer to the question, he states, “There is a general argument that all of Biblical history had led to the Crucifixion and Resurrection...” (p. 44). Following these comments, Meacham remarked:
Yet anyone reading the ancient Israelite texts outside the Christian tradition may not necessarily interpret them as a prologue to the New Testament.... To think that Christianity negates God’s covenant with Israel, meanwhile, is misguided and contrary to canonical apostolic teaching. God’s choice of the Jewish people is eternal. Paul writes, no matter what: “...as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers...the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (pp. 44-45).
It is here that Meacham makes a fundamental error in his thought regarding the purpose of the New Testament. Christianity does, in fact, negate God’s old covenant with Israel, and applies those previous blessings to the obedient followers of Christ who become the spiritual seed of Abraham. As Paul wrote in Romans 2:28: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart....” (cf. Miller, 2004). Because of this misunderstanding of the purpose of the New Covenant as found in the New Testament writings, Meacham’s conclusions are frequently off base and inaccurate. The truth of the matter is, the entirety of the Old Testament pointed to the coming of the suffering Savior, and the entirety of the New Testament verified the fulfillment of His coming. To miss this central point is to miss the primary thrust of the entire Bible.
It seems, then, that in Meacham’s attempt to straddle the fence, he has done severe injustice to the actual facts relating to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as to the inspired documents in which these facts are preserved. In truth, the factuality of the resurrection stands or falls upon the fact that the New Testament documents are inspired. Their inspiration has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. To pick and choose which portions of the text one wants to accept as historical, reduces the books, and the resurrection accounts contained in them, to mere human invention. The apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). To reject the inspiration of the New Testament is to reject the story of Christ as recounted and expounded in those books. To reject the Christ is to reject the God and Father of that Christ. The idea that “whatever our faith,” we can get a good shot in the arm by simply thinking about the parts of the story of Jesus that we like, is rubbish. Jesus Christ said: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). With Jesus, it is all or nothing; a middle-of-the-road fence straddle will not do. As He Himself stated so many years ago: “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad” (Matthew 12:30).
Butt, Kyle (2002), “The Resurrection Narratives,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/555.
Lyons, Eric (2002), “Is the New Testament ‘Given by Inspiration of God’?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/1745.
Meacham, Jon (2005), “How Jesus Became Christ,” Newsweek, 145:40-48, March 28.
Miller, Dave (2004), “Is the Kingdom Yet to be Established?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2220.
Thompson, Bert (2003), In Defense of the Bible’s Inspiration, [On-line], URL http://www.apologeticspress.org/pdfs/e-books_pdf/idobi.pdf.