Historical Jesus. (Who ain’t all that historical.)

by K.W. Leslie, 09 January 2019

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 16.52 he clearly states….”
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 the idea the gospels aren’t historical?—that the Jesus we Christians believe in, is just ancient Christian fanfiction? This, true believers, is what we call the Historical Jesus hypothesis.

When he wasn’t staying in the White House, Thomas Jefferson used to spend his evenings at home in Virginia with four bibles (two copies each, so he could get the text from either side of the page), scissors and paste, splicing together a private book he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Nowadays we call it “the Jefferson Bible.” In Jefferson’s version of the story, Jesus does no miracles (except one or two, which Jefferson left in because he liked the lessons in those particular stories).

Displayed in Greek, Latin, French, and English—though Jefferson’s ancient-language skills were iffy, so sometimes they don’t line up perfectly. UVA Magazine

Y’see, Jefferson believed God doesn’t interfere with nature, and therefore Jesus never did miracles. He was only a teacher of morals. Miracles were added years later by supernaturalist Christians. So Jefferson literally cut out the miracles and kept the lessons. Well… the lessons he liked; not so much the hard-for-him-to-believe statements Jesus makes throughout John.

So yeah, the Historical Jesus idea isn’t new. It predates Jefferson. It stretches all the way back to the most ancient church; you see it in Marcion of Sinope. It’s based on the Jesus we know—the Jesus of the gospels and the apostles’ letters, the Jesus who still appears to people, the Jesus who’s coming back. But it’s a Jesus edited with scissors and paste, as people trim away everything they can’t or won’t believe.

And if anyone dares criticize these folks for distorting history, they’ll claim they aren’t distorting a thing. They’re restoring Jesus. It’s not them; it’s the Christians. Seems we took a perfectly ordinary Jewish rabbi and added all our religion to him. They’re just stripping away the religion and presenting the world with the real Jesus.

Oh, they claim they’ve good “historical” reasons for their whitewashing. 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 Christians swiped those ideas from pagans.
  • “People back then believed gods walked among them. Just look at the Greek and Roman myths. So the gentile Christians stole their ideas, and claimed Jesus was one such god.”
  • “Back then, in those pre-scientific days, people were stupid enough to accept miracle stories.”
  • “The early Christians needed a Messiah who wasn’t just a great moral teacher; he needed to be divine too. 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.”

Borrow these excuses, and you too can become an amateur Historical Jesus scholar.

Professional Historical Jesus scholars are slightly more responsible than this. They at least mention what the New Testament gospels say… then “debunk” it and proceed to their theories. Often backed by nonbiblical sources, though frequently just their own reasoning. I listened to one Historical Jesus professor accept and teach one story from Mark, then reject various others without offering any reason whatsoever why we should consider one story valid, and the others not.

Amateurs seldom bother with alternate historical sources: All their conclusions are based on what they consider commonsense. “It’s so obvious; how could you not see this?” Or they act like everybody thinks this way, and only us harebrained Christians still accept the gospels as legit.

The trilemma.

In recent years the Historical Jesus idea has become more popular. I partly blame Christian apologists for it, because they’re just so ridiculously fond of the trilemma argument for why we gotta believe in Jesus.

The term was coined by John Duncan before his death in 1870:

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.

—from W.A. Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica 109

Rather than a simple dilemma (Jesus is Lord, or not) they act as if there are three options, a tri-lemma. As Josh McDowell rephrased and popularized it, Jesus is “liar, lunatic, or Lord.” G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis both taught the idea… and apologists tend to present it as if these are humanity’s only three options.

They are not. The Historical Jesus theory is option #4: Jesus is nothing like his followers claim. We’re the liars or lunatics.

Heck, some skeptics go to a crazy extreme, and claim Jesus didn’t even exist. (And we can call that option #5.) They claim Jesus was invented by the apostles; totally baked from scratch, or loosely based on Persian myths about Mithra, Norse myths about Baldr, Egyptian myths about Osiris, and blended with Pharisaic Judaism to create Jesus the Nazarene.

Trilemma fans forget every other religion teaches option #4. Muslims claim Jesus is a prophet and little more, and we Christians have wrongly deified him. Jews accept he may have been a prophet, but certainly isn’t Messiah. Hindus accept he may have been God’s avatar—but there are many avatars, and they kinda like the Indian ones better. Buddhists figure the universe doesn’t work like Christianity claims it does. Various eclectic pagans claim Jesus is divine—but so are we; or that Jesus is a more-advanced-than-usual person; or at least a great moral teacher, but not Lord.

And so forth. The trilemma really may really impress Christians with it’s “profundity,” but as an evangelistic tool it’s rubbish. Every time I bothered to try it on people, they quickly identified it as a false trilemma, and went with option #4.

The life of Historical Jesus.

So as they tend to teach it: Once upon a time there was a real-life man named Yeshua bar Joseph, from Nazareth in the Galilee, born at the end of the first century BC. He was a Jew. He taught some stuff. He caught the unwelcome attention of the Judean senate and the Roman occupation. The Romans crucified him in the year 33.

What’d Historical Jesus teach? Depends on the historian.

  • Jesus taught Judaism and nothing more.
  • Jesus taught a radical or heretic form of Judaism. It’s unlike what Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Qumranis taught, and irritated the leaders of those denominations.
  • Just like hippies in the 1970s, Jesus was radically about peace and love and universal family, and the Man couldn’t handle that vibe.
  • Just like commies in the 1910s, Jesus 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.

To be fair, Christians (or Christianists) do some of this too. Ostensibly to teach Jesus; really to promote our own worldviews. The main difference between us and the Historical Jesus folks, is there is some orthodox Christianity mixed into our self-promotion. Whereas the Historical Jesus teachers wanna counter Christianity. We’re teaching him wrong, they insist; they got him right.

So when we Christians talk about Jesus as we understand him, Historical Jesus insist our Jesus is wrong: He’s the product of swallowing whole the stuff our churches force-feed us. Their Jesus 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.

Thing is, when Christianity is taught properly, there comes a point when we’re not just repeating everything our religious teachers tell us. We encounter, and follow, the living, breathing Lord Jesus directly. He’s still alive, y’know! We learn about Jesus from Jesus.

And as we’re working our way to that point, test everything. Fact-check every teacher. Not just the folks who don’t believe in Jesus: You’re more likely to be led in the wrong direction by the people you most presume are right. So do fact-check Christian teachers.

Whereas the people who promote Historical Jesus, seldom bother to fact-check their professors. Or examine whether their professors are even practicing proper history.

How history works. Or doesn’t.

As you know, history is the study of the past—distant or recent. But there’s a proper way to study it, and cranks are too interested in their agenda to do it properly. Works like so.

Say I’m writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln. (He, William Shakespeare, and Jesus the Nazarene are the most popular subjects of biographies.) How would I start? Simple: Read what Lincoln himself wrote. Read what the original sources wrote: All the people who personally knew and met Lincoln. All the reporters and writers who covered him during his day. Look at the artifacts he left behind. Look at the places he lived. Look at the events he personally experienced, which shaped his life. Read the books he read, and see which of them influenced the way he thought. Dig into every bit of these sources we can find. And while we’re at it, read some of the other biographies on Lincoln, in case other historians caught something we missed.

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 disguise their views as Lincoln’s. History doesn’t matter.

Fr’instance I’m against racism. So let’s say I’m writing an anti-racism book, and I wanna refer to Lincoln because he banned slavery. Problem is, Lincoln was a bit of a racist. Seriously: In his early anti-slavery arguments, he claimed he didn’t 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 his racism, or most of it anyway, was gone. Problem is, there’s no conclusive proof of these things. No matter how much we wish they were so.

But if I’m dead set on describing Lincoln as anti-racism, and really don’t care about history, facts don’t matter. I’ll selectively include anything which supports my view, and twist everything else till they support me too. Even though there might be more evidence against me. You know, like when David Barton claims Thomas Jefferson didn’t really believe in the separation of church and state—even though Jefferson coined the term.

A good historian, a good reporter, a good scientist, a good theologian, is gonna stay true to facts no matter where they lead. Even if they lead somewhere the historian doesn’t like. In comparison, bad historians care only about their opinions, not truth. 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 wanna make a name for themselves, and pushing a crackpot theory will get ’em far 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 gnostics, the founders of other first- and second-century religions, who claimed to have secret knowledge about Jesus which Christians didn’t. We Christians consider them heretics, because God doesn’t do secret knowledge; he’s told us everything we need to know. 1Co 2.10 But historians have to be fair: They can’t rule out the gnostics just because Christians call them heretic. Gotta study and weigh everyone. That’s how history works.

But when historians report their research properly, they state 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, his life and teachings, as did 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 pseudepigrapha, “fake writings.” There are tales of when Jesus’s mother let people drink his bathwater and it cured them. Or when Jesus’s father cut a board too short, so Jesus stretched it to fit. Or when Jesus made birds of clay and brought ’em to life—on Sabbath, so Pharisees objected. Or when Jesus smited any schoolteacher who dared rebuke him. In these stories, Jesus comes across as a brat with superpowers.

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 any of this. ’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. None of it is unbiased history.

The most skeptical of them will insist we can’t know anything for certain: For all they know, Jesus the Nazarene was wholly invented by Christians. 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 did. In the end Historical Jesus always, always, looks like a Jesus-I-can-believe-in.

Just like Christianist Jesus.

Christian 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.

Christ Almighty!

Christian apologetics.