Who is the real Jesus?
Last year [this was written in 2007], just in time for Easter, the National Geographic Society published its translation of The Gospel of Judas, a second century Gnostic writing that makes a hero out of Judas Iscariot. According to this so-called gospel, Judas betrayed Jesus at Jesus’ behest, in order to liberate the divine spark of Jesus’ soul from its imprisonment in Jesus’ body.
No reputable scholar that I know of thinks The Gospel of Judas is historically accurate. But some scholars—not to mention many ordinary readers—think that historically accurate information about Jesus is hard to come by, if it can be come by at all. They are what I would call “historical Jesus relativists.” The canonical Gospels draw one portrait of Jesus, so their argument goes, Gnostic gospels (such as Judas) draw another, and who’s to say which is more accurate?
Throughout 1 John, John is responding to erstwhile Christians who have seceded from the church because of their denial of the truth about Jesus. What’s worse, they are trying to convince the remaining church members to follow their heretical lead. By way of reply, John writes this in 1 John 2:20-23:
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
These verses contain three criteria for determining the real Jesus:
First, the test of spiritual experience: John writes of “an anointing from the Holy One.” Most likely, this refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was the characteristic experience of Christians in the New Testament. As various passages in Acts make clear, this experience of the Holy Spirit united Christians despite their religious backgrounds, ethnicity, and geographical location (Acts 2:1-4, 8:14-17, 10:44-48, 11:15-18, 15:6-11, 19:1-7). And, as various passages in the Gospels make clear, baptism in the Spirit was the work of the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5).
Second, the test of tradition: John writes, “all of you know the truth.” They learned the truth when they first believed the gospel. It was the heretical secessionists who were promoting novel ideas, not John. For John, the truth about Jesus had been handed down from Jesus through apostles such as himself. Faith involved receiving this tradition with grateful affirmation.
Third, the test of doctrine: For John, neither experience nor tradition alone guarantees access to the real Jesus. Experiences can be faked, and given enough time, traditions can become deformed. What is necessary are truth claims. According to John, the truth about Jesus is that he is “the Christ,” that is, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. Deny that truth, and you have cut yourself off from access to the real Jesus.
So, who is the real Jesus? The One known for centuries through the common experience, unbroken tradition, and faithful doctrine of the church.
 Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Gospels (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2006); Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006); and N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006).