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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - The Historical Reality of Jesus

Robert Barron - The Historical Reality of Jesus

Robert Barron - The Historical Reality of Jesus

Peace be with you. Friends, a couple years ago, there was a poll done in Great Britain that revealed the majority of people in that country feel that Jesus was not a real historical figure. He was more of a mythic character. Mind you, this is in the land of Edward the Confessor and Thomas More and John Fisher, Edmund Campion, John Henry Newman, and G.K. Chesterton, all of whom, I guarantee you, are rolling their eyes in heaven at this finding. Because the historicity of Jesus, that's the technical term, the fact that he was a real historical figure, is of central importance to Christianity. There are all kinds of spiritual systems that trade in mythic language, that are kind of legendary, that use certain literary texts that bear a spiritual truth.

And as Jerry Seinfeld would say, "There's nothing wrong with that". I mean, I like the myths. I like legends that carry a spiritual truth. I like poetry that conveys timeless spiritual insights. Great, great. But that's not what Christianity is. Almost uniquely among the great religions of the world, it depends upon certain clear historical claims. Now, I get it. This has been true, especially in the last two, three hundred years, precisely because history is such an inexact science. It's because I can't reproduce the data of history and do an experiment on them. I can't go back and verify what happened to Abraham Lincoln and what happened to Julius Caesar.

If you're dealing with the realm of physics and chemistry, someone makes a claim, I'd say, "Well, I'll test that. Let me observe. I'll do some experiments and I'll draw my own conclusions," and, "Oh, yeah, I can verify what you just said". Great. But history can't be that way, so there's always a level of inexactitude, incertitude when it comes to history. Well, this fact has led some Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, over the centuries to say, "Let's bracket history. Let's not focus so much on historical fact as on the great spiritual truths being conveyed by these Christian texts". Indeed, go back long before the last couple hundred years. Go back to the ancient Gnostics who are making similar claims. But everybody, trust me when I tell you, the founding texts of Christianity do not allow this path of interpretation. They do not permit Christianity to devolve into a mere mythic system.

The first Christians were intensely interested in history. Now, let me tell you why, and I'll say more about it in a second. They were convinced something had happened. They weren't trading again in timeless spiritual truths that any wise person could access in principle. No, something happened. We're in the season of Advent, right? "Adventus," he came, something happened. Something broke into history, and that's what makes all the difference, and they wanted to share that with us. Now, a really good example is the Gospel of Luke. We're reading all this liturgical year now from the Gospel of Luke. Unlike Mark, who wrote a very rough and ready Greek. Mark was certainly not someone who was a native Greek speaker and writer, and wrote in a kind of a plodding, straightforward way.

Even Matthew, they think Matthew was originally in Hebrew or Aramaic and then was translated, and it sort of bears the marks of that. But Luke and John are both very good Greek stylists. They're operating at a higher literary level. And I want to read something to you. We never hear this in the liturgy, but it's the opening paragraph of the Gospel of Luke in which he tells us precisely what he's doing, and I want you to listen to this.

"Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word, I too," so this is Luke speaking, "I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus," we don't quite know who that was, but he's addressing this person, "so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you've been instructed".

Okay, he's an historian who's done his research. He's read the relevant texts. He's sought out the eyewitnesses, listened to them, and is now trying to give us an orderly account of the things that have happened and have been fulfilled among us. Listen, everybody, this is not the way mythmakers talk. This is not 'once upon a time' or 'in a galaxy far, far away.' This man is talking about things that happened. I'm ranting here a bit, I apologize. But when I was a student years ago, you heard so often the claim that, "Oh, the Gospels, they were written long after the time of Jesus, and so they're mostly about the communities that produced them, and it's mostly the mind of the author, and what really happened with Jesus? Well, who knows about that"? Nonsense.

Let's say the earliest Gospel, they speculate Mark, written around the year 70. Luke, maybe ten years after that. What if I were sitting down right now to write a definitive history of the JFK assassination, now almost what, sixty years ago? And I said, "Look, I've read all the books. I've read all the articles, all the research. I've talked to eyewitnesses". There are still some around. I spoke to a priest from Dallas some years ago, who was a teenager in the parade that day when JFK went by. There are people still around who were eyewitnesses. Would you say I was writing a book of mythology, that I was writing a book of legends that had nothing to do with historical fact? No, no, no. You'd say, "This guy is a responsible historian".

So, Luke is writing history as well as he can at that time, because it matters that these things happened. "Adventus," something happened. Someone came, right? Now, this brings me to our Gospel for today, and I want to read you this extraordinary passage. With what I just read in mind, it makes perfect sense. Luke says, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas".

Okay, could this man get any more precise? Could he be any more exact about what he's describing? This is not "once upon a time." This is like if I were to say to you, "When Joe Biden was president and Gavin Newsom was governor of California, having just survived his recall election, it was the second year of the COVID pandemic, it was the eighth year of the pontificate of Pope Francis," you'd say, "Yeah, sure. I know that time exactly". Would you think for one second that I was telling you a fairy tale or trading in mythic language? No, no. You'd say, "This man's describing something that really happened".

Ah, so is Luke. Can we independently verify the existence of these various figures? You bet we can. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests, sure, we can independently verify their existence. Mythic abstractions are fine as far as they go, but Luke is not trading in those. He's not trading in those. Now, having made this point, I hope, maybe in a belabored way, that we're dealing with historical fact, it also sets us up beautifully for the spiritual reversal that Luke is very interested in. In anticipation of this same deal, the same deal. You know the Christmas story from Luke's Gospel. Same dynamic, right?

"When Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome, when Quirinius was governor of Syria". Yeah, okay, so he is specifying what time it was. But then what's he do? The story I'm telling you, though I'm placing it historically, but it's not about Caesar Augustus. It's not about Quirinius. It's about this little nobody couple making their way from Bethlehem, from the north to the south of this distant outpost of the empire. Luke on purpose reverses what you'd expect from an ancient historian. Ancient historians didn't write about common people, they wrote about the high and mighty. Luke is suggesting something extraordinary, everybody. When God breaks into history, he turns it upside down. He reverses it. He turns our expectations upside down from top to bottom.

So in the story today, let me just rehearse this for you. So, the way it begins, "fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar," yeah, the emperor of Rome, the biggest guy around. "When Pontius Pilate," yeah, his local representative, he "was governor of Judea". "Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, his brother, tetrarch of Ituraea, Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene". Yeah, these big, kind of Jewish vassal leaders and so on. "When Annas and Caiaphas," yeah, the two most important religious figures of that time and place. Yeah, when all those people were reigning, what? "The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert". What?

See, he did the same thing he did with the Christmas story. Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, the big dealers, but I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about these two nobodys who give birth to this child who's placed in a manger, surrounded by the animals, no place to lay his head. Something happened that turned history upside down. So all these great figures of church and state, but the Word of God came not to any of them, but to John, the son of Zechariah. This nobody out in the desert? Who'd be out in the desert? God works in weird ways, everybody. He breaks into time and space and history. Why? In order to redo them.

Has history gone off the rails? You bet. Call that the history of sin. Is it often summed up precisely in the high and mighty people, precisely in all these people that we look at and we look to and we admire and we take seriously? Yeah. Yeah. They often sum up what's worst in the world. And so when the Word of God breaks into time and space and human history, it does it in a way that turns everything upside down. Where, by the way, does this great story go to reach its climax? When this Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is dying on a Roman cross. All the high and mighty, yes, including the Jewish religious leaders, brought him to that place. But where's God? He's not with those people. He's not with the ones that we look to and admire, but rather he's there, that criminal dying on a Roman cross, that's where he is.

You see the danger, everybody, in turning Christianity into a mythic system. The high and mighty of the world breathe a sigh of relief. You see what I'm saying? "Oh, yeah, one more harmless religious story". But when you say, "No, no, no, no, no, no. We're not dealing with myths here. We're dealing with something that happened. Something happened. Someone came," that means the high and mighty, who are often embodiments of sin and injustice, they start trembling in their boots, because it really happened. God broke through in a way that reworks everything, that turns everything upside down. That's why the story that people like Luke is telling matters so much. That's why it matters that he's a careful historian recounting for us a real "adventus," something that came and happened in history. And God bless you.
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