The Brilliant Storyteller
Since the story of the two sons in Luke 15 shares deep connections with the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin, both of which share rabbinic echoes, it seems that all five stories in Luke 15–16 connect with each other in a complex web of relationships that suggests they come from a single author.
That author must be a brilliant storyteller, able to craft multiple powerful stories and also able to speak to more than one audience at a time. The author also must be deeply familiar with (1) Palestine, (2) the Old Testament, and (3) rabbinic ways of talking. Jesus of Nazareth, the most famous Jewish teacher of all time, fits just this profile.
By contrast, Luke does not fit this profile. He is traditionally thought to have been a Greek from Antioch in Syria. Colossians 4:10–14 seems to imply that he was not a Jew. He was certainly intelligent and carried out thorough research. He was the author not only of the Gospel that bears his name but also of the Acts of the Apostles, which shows considerable familiarity with many places around the Mediterranean. I am certainly not wanting to suggest that he was incapable of telling a good story. But he is not a natural candidate for the author of the specifically Palestinian details of the parable of the unjust manager, nor for the knowledge of rabbinic ideas revealed in Luke 15. What is more, even in the unlikely scenario that a Gospel writer was a much better storyteller than the teacher he credited his stories to, the Gospel writer would have had no reason to put in such a wealth of references to Genesis into such a short story unless he had an audience of Bible scholars in mind. Overall, supposing Luke to be the author of the story of the two sons explains little, while supposing Jesus to be the author explains exactly what we see.
Jesus’s Death and Resurrection
We can see then that Jesus is indeed the genius behind Luke 15 as well as behind other parables in the Gospels. Jesus also knew and loved the Old Testament, which is a reminder to any who claim to follow him that they need to take the Old Testament seriously.
But it is not just that Jesus’s longest story has an uncanny unity with the Old Testament; so also do the known facts of his life. We know from both Christian sources and the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. AD 56–ca. 120) when and by whom Jesus was executed. As Tacitus says,
Christ had undergone the death penalty during the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate.1
Jesus died on a cross, a form of tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24), thereby bringing life. His death on a tree provides an answer to the question posed by the opening narrative of the Jewish Scriptures—the fateful scene at a tree when the first humans ate the forbidden fruit, came under a sentence of death, and were thrust out from paradise (Gen. 3). This story of death and exile from God’s presence naturally raises the question of how relationship with God can be regained and whether there is any answer to death.
Quite independent from Christian records, a major Jewish source confirms the time of the year of Jesus’s death:
On the eve of Passover, they hanged Jesus.2
Jesus was executed on the eve of the great annual Passover festival of the Jews, when they celebrated their exodus from slavery in Egypt. He died in the Jewish capital at the most significant festival in the Jewish calendar, just when that uniquely influential nation was shedding the blood of the largest number of animals and thinking of how the blood was shed on their behalf. They got together in households and sacrificed a Passover lamb and marked the doors of their houses with its blood, remembering what the ancient Israelites had done in Egypt. The Passover lamb symbolized a substitute. It died so that they did not need to. Are the timing, location, and method of Jesus’s death just a coincidence?
The four Gospels report that after his crucifixion, Jesus rose again and came back to life on the third day. The tomb was empty. There are many reports of people seeing him, including these words from the apostle Paul, written about AD 54:
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Cor. 15:6 ESV)
Numerous books have laid out the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.3 Still, thinking people today have often been rightly wary of the way some explain phenomena in the world with appeals to the supernatural. Such explanations are often seen as in tension with the methods of science, which brings us many advances in knowledge, whether in engineering, medicine, or physics. This is where the Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead needs to be properly appreciated. It is not a claim for an anomaly within a universe otherwise guided by science. Rather, Jesus’s resurrection forms part of a pattern, not an anomaly. It is one of a large number of remarkable things recorded about the person of Jesus.4 Jesus had an impressive storytelling ability, but it must be considered together with all of the other striking things about him.
Jesus’s resurrection forms part of a pattern, not an anomaly.
The Greater Story
The beginning of the Jewish Bible, together with the finale offered by Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection recorded in the New Testament, tell the greater story of a Creator God, whose commands we humans have disobeyed, making us subject to the death penalty. To have that penalty lifted, we need a substitute more valuable than a Passover lamb to take our place. What if the great storyteller also lived a perfect life? What if he came from God? What if he was the long-anticipated Jewish Messiah? What if he was God’s Son? All these things are claimed of Jesus in the Gospels, the very books that we have seen reliably reporting Jesus’s words. If Jesus came from God, it would also explain how he could be such a genius.
The single best explanation for Jesus’s genius is found at the beginning of John’s Gospel, where the Word, later identified as Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 17), is described both as alongside God and as God himself:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
If the storyteller Jesus Christ is God himself, who made the world, invented language, oversaw history, and then became human to tell us about God and to rescue us from our alienation to him, then his wisdom and genius make sense. And if he is that smart and if he also loved us enough to die to save us, the only sensible thing to do is to accept him unreservedly as our teacher, guide, and Savior.
- The Latin reads, Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat. Tacitus, Annals 15.44. Tacitus uses the later title procurator for Pilate when he was, in fact, a prefect.
- The Hebrew is Be‘erev hapesakh tela’uhu leyeshu, בערב הפסח תלאוהו לישו (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a). The Babylonian Talmud is one of the most important collections of Jewish traditions, and though only completed about half a millennium after Jesus, it contains many traditions from the time of Jesus.
- Two of many such defenses are the more popular William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), and the more technical N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003).
- For some examples of this, see my book Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 129–40.
This article is adapted from The Surprising Genius of Jesus: What the Gospels Reveal about the Greatest Teacher by Peter J. Williams.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
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