Finding God In


My Search for the Historical Jesus

“We all sensed he could be trouble, and we wanted to make sure he never again became a live issue.”

Punting on the Cam, Cambridge, England, C.S. Lewis Institute. L to R: Kelly Monroe, Joy Jordan-Lake, Todd Lake, Jennifer Wiseman.

After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1982, with a degree in German studies, Todd Lake deferred entrance to Harvard Law School—twice—while he mulled over whether law or the ministry would present the better opportunity for serving the poor. During this time, he worked as a legislative aide in California on bills protecting migrant farmworkers’ rights and later as a volunteer with the Peace Corps’ environmental sanitation program in Paraguay.

Lake chose the ministry and studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, Southern Seminary in Kentucky, and earned a doctorate in systematic theology in a joint program between Boston College and Andover-Newton School of Theology. In 1989 he married Joy Jordan, fellow seminarian, gifted novelist, and passionate horse-lover. Together they served as pastors at Cambridgeport Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Todd is now Vice President for Spiritual Development at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, where they also raise and enjoy adventures with three children.

While we were both members of the United Ministry at Harvard-Radcliffe, I, Kelly, often cajoled and otherwise called upon Todd, with no less that a twenty-minute warning, to speak in forums on Christian apologetics and on the historicity of the New Testament. This story follows those themes, as well as Todd’s remarkable journey.

My Search for the Historical Jesus

by Todd Lake

From the book, Finding God at Harvard.

Religious truth. I had long viewed this as a classic oxymoron. Debates among devotees of the Buddha, the prophet Mohammed, and the Christ seemed as pointless as junior high boys arguing about whose girlfriend was prettiest. Agnosticism seemed the honest person’s turf—not a denigration of anyone else’s faith but a recognition that proclaiming a personal preference as a universal truth is intellectually dishonest.

I took this tolerant attitude with me to Harvard College, a place where relativism in all things religious is viewed as the birthright of the intellectual. Into my closed universe burst a practitioner of the arcane science of Christian apologetics by the name of Josh McDowell, author of the bestselling book Evidence That Demands a Verdict. He asked an intriguing question: “What if Jesus really had risen from the dead, vindicating his claim to be God in the flesh?” I thought of the late-night television comedy query “What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?” It seemed to me about as likely. And in Mrs. Roosevelt’s favor, at least we had historical evidence for her existence.

I was puzzled that McDowell wanted to know how I knew anything at all about Eleanor Roosevelt or anyone from the past. It seemed to me that if the issue were her flying or Jesus’ rising, the answer was obvious: science taught us that both were impossible. But he pointed out that the scientific method of verifying a claim was predicated on being able to repeat an experiment, and that because neither of the aforementioned subjects could be thus examined, neither could be disproved by science. Science cannot prove or disprove any historical event. McDowell then suggested that the quarrel about Jesus’ resurrection was not with science at all. Indeed, those who recognize a miracle as such are already presupposing the truth of science— that is, they assume a uniform functioning of scientific natural laws.

Christians do not claim that Sons of God or resurrections from the dead have ever been part of the repeatable natural order but that at one time and place, God became a human being, suffered and died for our misdeeds, and was raised from the dead. This moves Jesus (and Eleanor) from the province of science to that of history and opens the question of the verifiability of historical claims.
I thought about this for a while. This conclusion seemed logical, but I also knew the historical argument would doom the inquiry from the start. The documents that spoke of Jesus had been written by fanatical partisans long after his death, then copied and miscopied for centuries. Christian acceptance of the New Testament was simply another triumph of dogmatic faith over clear, cold reason.

At Harvard, I had not so much come to such conclusions as inherited them. The idea that there was anything left to discuss about Jesus, with the possible exception of his ethics, would have struck most of us as utterly ancient. Moreover, most of us knew enough about Christianity to realize that if Jesus were accepted as the Son of God, religious relativism would take it on the chin. I remember Mother Teresa’s speech on the steps of Memorial Church at the Class Day exercise in 1982, where she talked of Jesus incessantly—I mean incessantly—and even quoted that verse, John 3:16 (already well known to most of us, thanks to signs in end-zone bleachers). But in a triumph of brilliant editing, Harvard Magazine’s account managed to report almost the entire Mother Teresa speech without once hinting that she might even have mentioned Jesus. We all sensed he could be trouble, and we wanted to make sure he never again became a live issue.

This seemed assured, because of the hazy past he inhabited. So I was surprised to learn that even non-Christian New Testament scholars granted that these early Christian documents were, by and large, historically accurate. The article on Jesus in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1972) asserts that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the events recorded. Even Anthony Flew, committed British atheist, concedes that the earliest New Testament documents bring us to within twenty years of Jesus’ death.

Yet all this talk of documentation, it seemed to me, sidestepped the problem of the checkered history of the transmission of those documents. Even if a newspaper account is initially accurate, after centuries of hand-copying it will eventually be transmuted into only a garbled version of the original. What hope was there for the New Testament?

As it turns out, the modern science of textual criticism has developed techniques for looking at the thousands of early handwritten copies of the New Testament documents and discerning certain patterns of copying errors made by scribes. The process of arriving at the best readings has progressed to the point that the twenty-sixth edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament is used by every New Testament scholar, regardless of their faith or their stance toward the New Testament’s claims about miracles.

They know what the general public does not: the Greek New Testament documents in our hands—and their modern English translations— are virtually identical to the ones penned by the earliest followers of Jesus. Indeed, scholars agree that there are more serious textual discrepancies between various versions of Hamlet than there are between translations of the New Testament.

This seemed to be an important point. But then again, Widener Library in Harvard Yard has accurately-transmitted copies of Pravda from the 1970s in its files. No one thinks that they are therefore faithful mirrors of Soviet events in the 1970s. Couldn’t the earliest followers of Jesus simply have concocted his resurrection and the alleged prior supporting miracles and sayings? The answer is yes, but the question is, why would they? What possible long-term motivation could they have had that would not have been nipped in the bud by the first lion brought in to eat up Christians? L. Ron Hubbard, a moderately successful science fiction writer, stated in 1950 that the way to get rich was to invent a religion. He promptly founded the Church of Scientology and made a fortune. On the other hand, the followers of Jesus met with bitter persecution from both the Jews and Romans, as even Jewish and Roman historians, such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Seutonius, attest. It is highly unlikely that people would willingly die for a story they know is fabricated, and yet the earliest followers of Jesus repeatedly paid with their life’s blood for claiming that he was God incarnate, the Messiah of the Jews and the only true light for the Gentiles.

But Japanese kamikaze pilots and Iraqi martyr-soldiers also died for their beliefs, not knowing that the assurance of posthumous bliss in exchange for sacrificial suicide may well have been an empty promise. Wasn’t belief in the resurrection similar? The difference is this: There was no way for kamikaze pilots to have known whether or not the promise of posthumous honor was true. They could not verify it. But if Jesus had not been resurrected, the disciples would have known. In the relatively small town of Jerusalem, there was no way for them to fool themselves. One is therefore hard pressed to explain the martyrdom of the apostles of Jesus in some way other than that Jesus rose. For if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, his apostles must have fabricated the story themselves. And if so, then their deaths and their refusal to retract their statements of faith contradict every theory of human motivation and behavior. Moreover, the Jewish and Roman authorities, who had placed armed guards at the tomb, had every reason publicly to display the corpse of Jesus if it were in their possession. And let us not forget that the earliest followers of Jesus were devout Jews. They knew they would suffer death here and damnation in the hereafter for lying about God’s actions and proclaiming a false, dead Messiah to their contemporaries.

The logic of the Christian position was beginning to overwhelm me, so in true Harvard fashion I did not counter the arguments but simply posed another question: “This information about Jesus is interesting, but to be intellectually honest, wouldn’t I have to examine all of the other religions and their claims about Jesus?” As it turns out, the pre-Christian religions are understandably silent on the subject, and evidence from the post-Christian ones is inadmissible. The fourth sura of the Koran, for example, suggests that someone else was crucified in Jesus’ stead. However, this conjecture was written six centuries after the eyewitness accounts in the four Gospels, much too late to have any historical value. And the traditional “out”—that Jesus may have lived and died but he was just a great moral teacher— ignores the reason for his getting into so much trouble in the first place. It was not “Love your neighbor as yourself” which caused him problems but his extraordinary claim to be the Son of God, the Messiah. This is the crucial claim that has led so many alternative religions, and even some so-called Christian denominations such as Unitarian Congregationalism (which dominated Harvard in much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), to carefully deny either Jesus’ deity, sinlessness, atoning crucifixion, or resurrection, even though they accept him as a great prophet and moral teacher.
Ironically, it is the Hebrew Scriptures, written centuries before Jesus was born, which give perhaps the most impressive evidence for Jesus being who his disciples said he was. Virtually all of the central circumstances of Jesus’ life found in the Greek New Testament are prefigured in the Hebrew Old Testament: the Messiah was to be a descendant of King David (Jeremiah 23:5; Acts 13:22–23), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:1–6), attested to by the miracles he did (Isaiah 61:1–2; Luke 4:18–21), rejected in the end as he suffered for the sins of others (Isaiah 53:2–6; Mark 15:1–39), and subjected to the ignominy of being crucified, with his tormentors gambling to decide who would take his clothing (Psalm 22:15–18, John 19:23–24).

Although I was now too intrigued to pretend I would not read the New Testament, I still wanted to exercise my right to be an independent thinker. I decided that the gambling detail, for example, was probably smuggled into the story by the disciples to make the prophecy fit Jesus. It turns out that it was common for Roman centurions to cast lots for the personal effects of the deceased; how would the writers of the Hebrew Bible have known that gambling for a criminal’s tunic would become a common Roman practice several hundred years later? All right, then what about this crucifixion thing? Couldn’t this too have been contrived to tally with the Hebrew Scriptures? But there also, the same counterargument applied: crucifixion was a Roman invention predicted by Old Testament writers foretelling the death of Jesus centuries before.

I had read the New Testament as literature in high school, but now as I opened the Bible to the Gospel According to John, I knew that I was in the same position as those living in Palestine in the time of Jesus. I could know for myself what he said and did. Whether I became another Judas or another Peter was up to me.1
In July of 1979, I knelt down in the kitchen of my family’s home in Whittier, California, and asked the resurrected Jesus Christ of history to forgive me for what I had done to others and to God, and to come into my life and make me the person God had created me to be.

In the coming years, my desire to own a Porsche and practice corporate law withered away. Christ gave me the chance to serve poor farm workers, and to work with the Peace Corps. After seminary, I pastored a Baptist church in Cambridge, and became a chaplain and/or dean at several colleges, with ministries to students, the elderly, prisoners, and the hungry and homeless. Jesus Christ continues to transform us, ever so slowly but as quickly as we’ll let him, and to use us to transform the world, that we might one day see what we now, thanks to Handel, sing: “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.”

1) I found the following books particularly meaningful in examining the case for Jesus’ resurrection and the historical reliability of the New Testament: F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1981). C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947). Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, vol. 1 (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here’s Life, 1979). He Walked Among Us (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here’s Life, 1988). Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968). Frank Morrison, Who Moved the Stone? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1958).