No person has ever had a greater impact on the history of the world, and yet no person has been the focal point of more controversy and strife. No person has ever been worshipped with such devotion or manipulated with such selfish ingenuity. For well over a century, an ever-changing band of biblical “scholars” (some of them genuine, but most of them self-appointed) have organized themselves under the rubric of the Jesus Seminar and have taken as their goal the grail-like search for the “historical Jesus.”
Sadly, though the majority of their findings are based on their readings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (with an occasional gnostic gospel thrown in), most members of the Jesus Seminar refuse to treat the canonical gospels with the respect they deserve. And that despite the growing number of historians and textual critics who have judged the gospels to be reliable historical documents based on eyewitness accounts that corroborate, rather than duplicate, one another.
Though C. S. Lewis was not a trained biblical scholar, he was an expert reader of literature with a fine eye for the distinctions between genres. Long before modern scholarship confirmed the historical accuracy of the gospels, Lewis had already explained to his readers that the Jesus of the gospels and the “historical Jesus” of revisionist scholarship were one and the same.
Anyone who reads the gospels alongside other ancient texts will immediately see the difference. There is nothing legendary about the gospels. They are, Lewis asserts, sober biographies grounded in real, down-to-earth details—the kind of details that do not appear in literature until the 19th century. As for Jesus himself, he emerges from the gospels with a concrete reality that surpasses all other figures in the ancient world (only Socrates comes close). When we read the gospels, we know Jesus in a way we do not know anyone else before the modern period.
As for the claims Jesus makes in the gospels, Lewis, in what is perhaps his best known apologetical argument, defuses all those critics who would treat Jesus as a good teacher or prophet and nothing more. In Mere Christianity (II.3), Lewis gives the lie to this attempt to domesticate and defang the historical Jesus of the gospels.
Again and again, Lewis reminds us, Jesus makes incredible claims about himself: he is the Way, the Truth and the Life; he is the Resurrection and the Life; he is one with the Father; he has the authority to forgive sins; he calls on people to follow him (and not just his teachings); he takes upon himself the power to reinterpret the Law.
A person who made these claims and was not the Son of God would not be a prophet or even a good man. He would either be a deceiver on a grand scale or a certifiable maniac. Yet the overwhelming consensus of the gospels and of those who knew Jesus rule out the possibility that he was either a liar or a lunatic. Once these two options are eliminated, however, we are left with only one possibility: that he was who he claimed to be.
And that is why Lewis concludes that we can shut Jesus up as a lunatic, kill him as a devil, or fall at his feet in worship—but “let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”