Probably should put “historical” in ironic quotation marks.
So here’s a little transcript of a discussion I once had with a skeptic. Slightly abridged.
- He. “Jesus never said that.”
- Me. “Sure he did. In
Mark 16.52he clearly stated….”
- He. “No, that’s what the bible says he said. I’m talking about what he actually said. Not what some Roman Christian, centuries later, claims he said.”
Where’d he get this idea—the gospels aren’t historical, and the Jesus we Christians believe in is just ancient Christian fanfiction? This, true believers, is the Historical Jesus hypothesis.
It’s hardly a recent theory. It predates Thomas Jefferson, who spent his evenings in the White House (this’d be around 1804) taking scissors and paste to four versions of the gospels, to splice together what we nowadays call “the Jefferson Bible.” In Jefferson’s gospel, Jesus does no miracles. (Well, one or two. Jefferson left ’em in because he liked the lessons in those particular stories.) Jefferson believed neither God, nor real-life Jesus, did miracles: Jesus was only a teacher of morals, and miracles were added centuries later by supernaturalist Christians. So Jefferson dropped the miracles and kept most of the lessons… except the hard-to-fathom, hard-for-him-to-believe statements Jesus made in John.
You see how Historical Jesus works. Take the Jesus we know—the Jesus of the gospels, apostles’ letters, Christians’ visions, and kingdom come. Now trim away anything you can’t or won’t believe. And in case anyone criticizes you for it, make sure you have “historical” reasons why you’ve done so. Here, I’ll give you a few.
- “When the Christians finally gained political power in the 300s, they rewrote their history so they sounded more supernatural and divine. ’Cause that’s just what victors do. But none of it’s true.”
- “These stories were passed down orally—from person to person, like an ancient game of ‘telephone.’ Stands to reason they’d get some facts wrong.”
- “In one gospel it says Jesus did this; in another it says he did that. I say it’s more likely both of them are wrong.”
- “There are a lot of similarities between Jesus’s actions in the gospels, and various pagan gods. Betcha the Christians swiped those ideas from the pagans.”
- “People back then believed the gods walked among them. Just look at the Greeks and Romans. So the gentile Christians borrowed that idea, and claimed Jesus was one such god.”
- “Back then, in those pre-scientific days, people were more likely to accept miracle stories.”
- “The early Christians needed a Messiah who wasn’t just a great moral teacher; he needed to be divine. So they rewrote him that way.”
- “According to the bible this event took place, but archaeology doesn’t confirm it, and other ancient historians don’t either. Probably never happened.”
- “The gospels claim this one person did this thing—but come on. Why would a person do such a thing? I would never. Makes no sense.”
And there y’go. You’re an amateur Historical Jesus scholar.
The professionals are slightly more responsible than this. They’ll at least mention what the New Testament gospels say… and then proceed to their theories, backed by other-than-biblical sources or their own reasoning. The amateurs will just borrow and parrot the professionals’ ideas. Either they’ll act like they came to the very same conclusions on their own—“It’s so obvious; how could you not see this?”—or they’ll act like everybody thinks this way, and only us harebrained Christians still accept the gospels as legit.
In recent years the Historical Jesus idea has become more popular, and I partly blame Christian apologists for it.
Y’see, apologists are ridiculously fond of the
Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable. W.A. Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica 109
G.K. Chesterton taught the idea, and C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell popularized it. McDowell rephrased it as “Liar, lunatic, or Lord”—instead of self-deception, as Duncan figured, McDowell posits it’s pure insanity. Hmm. Shouldn’t we include both then?—“Liar, lunatic, lost soul, or Lord”? Shouldn’t it be a quadri-lemma?
And what about all the other reasons pagans offer for not believing Jesus is Lord?
The Historical Jesus theory is that Jesus was actually none of those things. It’s his followers who are liars, lunatics, or lost souls. The real Jesus was nothing like his followers claim. Jesus, on the other hand: Great guy. Good moral teacher. Just not Lord.
That’s option #5. Here’s #6: Jesus didn’t even exist. He wasn’t even based on some obscure Galilean rabbi; he was totally baked from scratch. Pure fiction. Borrowed from Persian myths about Mithra, Norse myths about Balder, Egyptian myths about Osiris, and cobbled together with Judaism to invent “Jesus.”
And option #7: Don’t forget the other religions! Some of ’em claim Jesus was a lesser god created by the Most High God. Some claim he was a good man who worked his way to divinity. The Muslims say he’s a prophet and nothing more. The Hindus accept he could’ve been another avatar of God; they already have a bunch. And so forth.
So… do we have a septi-lemma? Nah. Just more stuff to teach in your typical Historical Jesus class.
The life of Historical Jesus.
So as they tend to teach it: Once upon a time there was this real-life actual guy named Yeshua bar Joseph, from Nazareth in the Galilee, born at the end of the first century
What’d Historical Jesus teach? Depends on the historian. Some claim Jesus taught Judaism and nothing more. Others figure it was a more radical or heretic form of Judaism. They accept the gospels’ idea it was unlike what the Sadducees and Pharisees taught, and it irritated the leaders of those sects. Some figure Jesus, just like hippies in the 1970s, was radically about peace and love and universal family, and the Man couldn’t handle that vibe. Others figure Jesus, just like commies in the 1910s, was about a violent angry overthrow of the system. Basically take whatever political movement you’re into—or against—and overlay that upon Jesus. Remake him in your own image.
So when we Christians talk about Jesus as we understand him, Historical Jesus folks object. Our Jesus is wrong; the product of swallowing whole the stuff our churches force-feed us. But theirs is critical, thoughtful, carefully analyzed, the product of practicing history. Ours is an error-plagued reinterpretation; theirs isn’t. They peeled down to the center of this big religious onion, found Historical Jesus, and teach him properly. We on the other hand are just repeating everything our religious overlords told us. Suckers.
Here’s the catch. Everyone’s repeating what their overlords told ’em. Only difference is, when Christianity is taught properly, after a point we’re no longer following what the overlords taught us: We’re following the living, breathing Lord directly. (He’s still alive, y’know.) We’re learning about Jesus from Jesus.
Meanwhile we Christians are supposed to come to our own conclusions. Test everything. Double-check the teachers. Because we care enough about Jesus to seek him as he really is. Whereas few skeptics who embrace Historical Jesus care enough to fact-check a single belief. Or whether their professors are even doing proper history.
How history works. Or doesn’t.
As you know,
Say I’m writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln. (He, William Shakespeare, and Jesus are the most popular subjects of biographies.) How would I start? Simple: Read what Lincoln himself wrote. Read what the
A sloppy historian would skip many of these steps. Or even all of them. Because the actual Abraham Lincoln doesn’t matter: They only care about their opinion of Lincoln. They’re not really writing about him; they’re writing about themselves. They’re disguising their views as Lincoln’s. History doesn’t matter.
Fr’instance I’m against racism. So let’s say I’m writing a book against racism, and referring to Lincoln because he was against slavery. Problem is, Lincoln was a bit of a racist. No, seriously. In his early anti-slavery arguments, he claimed he didn’t actually consider whites and blacks to be equal. He only considered slavery to be evil, and nothing more. Now, we can debate that’s not really how he felt, and he was pandering to racist audiences so they’d elect him. We can also argue Lincoln’s views on race evolved over time, and by the time he died this racism, or most of it anyway, was gone. Problem is, there’s no conclusive proof of any such thing. No matter how much we wish it were so.
But if I’m dead set on describing Lincoln as anti-racism, and really don’t care about history, I’ll ignore that fact. I’ll selectively include anything which supports my view, and twist anything iffy till it supports it too. Even though there might be more stuff which disproves me. You know, like when David Barton claims Thomas Jefferson didn’t really believe in the separation of church and state—even though Jefferson’s the man who coined the term.
A good historian, a good reporter, a good scientist, a good theologian, is gonna stay true to the facts no matter where they may lead. Even if they lead somewhere the historian doesn’t like. In comparison, bad historians don’t care about truth. Only their opinions. A bad historian’s Lincoln will say whatever the historian wants. It just won’t be the real Lincoln.
There are a lot of wannabe historians. Wannabes in every field, whether biblical studies, medicine, science, economics, political theory, or business. They don’t care about the field; the field’s a means to an end, and the end is to push their theories. They don’t care whether facts get in their way. They want to make a name for themselves, and pushing a crackpot theory will get ’em more notoriety than the same truths everyone else tells. We need to recognize this fact—and watch out.
Back to Jesus. A legitimate historian will study Jesus the same way as Lincoln: Start with what Jesus himself wrote. Well, Jesus didn’t write anything, so we move on to the next thing: The people who personally knew and met him. You know, the apostles. The scriptures. The bible.
Do you believe the bible? The historian, maybe not. But a good historian will report it nonetheless. Because that’s the literature we got.
What about other books about Jesus, written during that time? Most of ’em were written by
But when historians do their research properly, they conclude gnostics aren’t as reliable as the apostles. Gnostics wrote their books centuries after the apostles. They didn’t have the same access to Jesus’s life and teachings as the apostles. Some of the gnostic works make no logical sense either. There’s good reason the early Christians rejected them.
Gnostics told lots of wacky stories about Jesus, as a baby and little boy. They claim their gospels were written by apostles or Jesus’s family members—but they all date from at least a century after those people were dead, so we Christians call ’em
Any good historian—Christian or not—will report this too. And why to believe it, or not. Leaving the students to make up their own minds, based on the available evidence. Teaching the students how to practice proper history, then do it themselves.
Sad to say, not everyone who teaches a Historical Jesus class bothers to do so. ’Cause Jesus isn’t just someone we can analyze from afar. He’s relevant. He still calls people to follow him. So they have to explain why they’re not gonna. They picked a side—and in order to defend themselves, they tend to teach their side. Not unbiased history.
The most skeptical of them will insist we can’t know anything for certain: For all they know, Jesus of Nazareth was invented by Christians from scratch. The most anti-Christian will claim Jesus is real, but nuts, or a fraud, and evil. The anti-supernatural will embrace every story but the miraculous ones, like Thomas Jefferson. In the end Historical Jesus always, always, looks like a Jesus-I-can-believe-in.
Just like Christianist Jesus.
The Jesus I proclaim, the Jesus I teach on here at TXAB, is partly historical. Y’see, as a Christian, I believe Jesus is alive. He exists in the present. He interacts with his followers today, right now. So he’s not purely historical; no more than any other contemporary person. When I write about what he taught in the gospels, I’m not just presenting it as stuff he taught thousands of years ago. It’s what he still teaches. It’s why I keep referring to Jesus in the present tense.
To a point I’m gonna present this stuff historically. After all, when Jesus said the stuff in the gospels, he was saying it to first-century Judeans, Galileans, Samaritans, Syrian Greeks, and other people of his part of the world in that point in time. I gotta explain how they would understand him. Otherwise I’m taking Jesus out of historical context—and getting him wrong. Too many Christians don’t care about historical context, ’cause like the Historical Jesus folks, they’re preaching their personal agendas. I’m trying to follow Jesus, so I’m more interested in what Jesus thinks. I figure so are you.
Proper Christian study of Jesus is gonna be way more historical than the Historical Jesus folks claim to be. Because we look at the gospels for what they say. We don’t dismiss a passage solely because we don’t like it, or because it butts heads with our worldview. We deal with it. They hurdle it.