Solomon once declared that “of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccl. 12:12). Truly, books roll from the presses by the millions – year after year. Not infrequently books reveal that they have been buttressed by “much study” which generates a “weariness of the flesh.” Some of them also precipitate a “weariness of the mind” — they are so trite, so utterly baseless.
In recent years there has been a rash of authors who have no legitimate claim to the fame they so covet. Accordingly, they fixate on Jesus Christ — in some controversial (not to mention bizarre) way — hoping to achieve notoriety, in piggy-back fashion, on the reputation of the most celebrated Person who has lived upon this earth.
Spawned by that lust is the recently-published book, Rescuing Jesus from the Christians (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2002). This volume (182 pages) was authored by Clayton Sullivan, a former Southern Baptist minister who also is a retired professor of philosophy and religion at Mississippi State University, and who has “retired” whatever vestige of “faith” he once fleetingly entertained. With all due respect, the book is so ridiculously asinine as to warrant no serious review. It does, however, serve as a pristine example of the sort of shoddy scholarship that plagues the rag-tag band of “Jesus critics.”
Let me focus just briefly upon several points.
Trashing the Gospel of John
First, Sullivan proposes to construct a new “historical” Jesus, grounded in the tradition of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). John, he opines, is a much later construct, much too far removed from the actual events of history to be of value in clarifying the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
If we may be allowed our “nickle’s worth” of psychoanalysis, we suspect that the real problem that Sullivan has with John is the apostle’s emphasis on the deity of Jesus (cf. Jn. 1:1ff; 10:30; 20:28,30-31). Be that as it likely is, to dredge up that stale tale about the lateness of John’s Gospel record is absolutely inexcusable in the light of historical and archaeological evidence.
- Irenaeus (c. A.D. 185) explicitly affirmed that John wrote his Gospel account in his latter years from his residence in Ephesus of Asia (Against Heresies, 3.1.1). In the third century A.D., Origen called John’s production the “first fruits” of the Gospels (Commentary on John, 1.6) — a descriptive hardly appropriate for a document considered to be late and historically insignificant. It is not necessary to further compound the evidence.
- The oldest known fragment of a New Testament document is the John Rylands papyrus known as P52. It contains a portion of the Gospel of John (chapter 18). The tiny document was obtained in 1920 by B.P. Grenfell in Egypt. It dates from the end of the first century or beginning of the second century A.D. — not later than A.D. 125. Having already made its way into Egypt at this early date, it is irrefutable proof that John’s Gospel is not a late production as modernists have alleged.
Christ’s Alleged Disdain of Non-Jews
Sullivan argues that Jesus’ message was designed for Jews exclusively, and that, in fact, the Lord cared little about those of non-Jewish extraction. How utterly bereft of evidence this ridiculous accusation is.
- Matthew’s Gospel has Gentiles listed in the genealogy of Christ (1:3,5,6). The first men to worship the Lord were Gentiles (Mt. 2:1-2). Much of Jesus’ work was done in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt. 4:15-16) — a suggestion that the Messiah’s light would shine eventually beyond the pale of Judaism. Some Gentiles were commended as having a faith that overshadowed those of Israelite stock (Mt. 8:10; cf. Lk. 4:25ff).
- High tribute is paid to a Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:7ff), and Samaritans (generally a despised people by the Jews — cf. Jn. 4:9) become the heroes in some of the Gospel accounts (cf. Lk. 10:30ff; 17:11ff).
- The united testimonies of the Synoptics relative to Christ’s concern for the salvation of every creature in all the nations flatly contradicts Sullivan’s baseless charge of Jesus’ non-concern for those other than Jews (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16; Lk. 24:47).
The Kingdom Failure
Professor Sullivan argues that Christ entertained a “fervent belief” that a magnificent kingdom, primarily for Jews, would be established on earth during his lifetime, but that this hope was but an illusion that never materialized.
- There is not one line in the Gospel records that indicates that Christ predicted a kingdom that would be established during his lifetime. He spoke of a coming kingdom, but it was not a political, “this world” regime (Jn. 18:36). In fact, after his death and resurrection, and shortly before his ascension, the Savior was still instructing his disciples that the “kindgom” was a future, though soon-to-be-accomplished, reality (Acts 1:6-8).
- From the events of the day of Pentecost onward, there is ample evidence that the kingdom of Christ was set up and in full operation. And men and women who obeyed the gospel of Jesus were citizens of that spiritual regime (cf. Mk. 9:1; Acts 1:8; 2:4; Jn. 3:3-5; Col. 1:13; Heb. 12:28; Rev. 1:6,9).
Finally, the misguided professor incredibly argues that the Gospel records are without any evidence that “Jesus viewed his death as a sacrifice for mankind’s sinfulness.” That is a most astounding charge. Does he actually think no one knows better than this, and that his wild assertions will be taken for evidence?
- Christ clearly taught that he came to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10). He declared himself to be the “bread of life” who came from heaven to provide himself as a sacrifice for sin (Jn. 6:48ff). He contended that there was no avenue of redemption save through him (Jn. 14:6).
- Jesus unequivocally taught that his death was to be a “ransom” for human sin (Mk. 10:45), and that by the shedding of his blood the “remission of sins” could be obtained (Mt. 26:28).
What takes hold of a man that he would make such historically irresponsible statements such as those issued by the Mississippi ex-cleric?
And so with this brief piece, we bid adieu to the professor and his noxious little book — the former a disillusioned minister-turned skeptic, the latter a trifling production void of scholastic credibility.