A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
A Jesus of History
Is Jesus history? For far too long Christian
theologians have settled for a version of history which has not been
subjected fully to the rigors of normal testing for "what really
happened". If they had, "secular" historians would have accepted more of
the Bible as good history than in fact have. What's now needed is a much
more ruthless approach to what's good history and what isn't.
As the 21st century takes shape so does a fascinating
debate about the nature of Christianity. While the secular world goes
about its business, many people are applying their minds anew to the Jesus
of history, the man whose life triggered one of the world's great social
The essence of the debate is this question: What do we know for sure
about Jesus? In other words, the debate is about what is usually known as
"the historical Jesus". How much, we ask, do we know about Jesus in the
sense that we know as a matter of good history facts about other great
public figures? Of course, there is "the historical Jesus" who was a person
who actually lived a life about which we know something - but not that much.
The "historical Jesus" here is the person revealed by what information we do
have about him - not the person who actually lived, since we can't know
everything about a person who is still alive, never mind one who has been
dead for two thousand years.
Responses to the question "How much do we know about the historical
Jesus?" are many and varied. But, it seems to me, relatively few people have
paused to ask why the subject is important at all. Does it really
matter whether or not we know anything for sure historically about Jesus?
Why this focus on evidence and probability?
Some maintain that history is secondary. It's the "Jesus of faith" who
really matters. They would presumably share Karl Barth's approach. He
held that reason and history can take us only to a certain point, beyond
which they provide no satisfactory answers. What matters after that point is
the penetrating vision of faith, which perceives what cannot be
I take this response to mean that those for whom the "Jesus of faith" is
primary will continue to relate to that Jesus regardless of any facts of
history. This seems a difficult position to maintain. If you take that
position, perhaps there's little point in reading further. For all you need
do is select the data about Jesus that makes sense to you, and then
penetrate beyond it with "the eye of faith".
However, it's not just reductio ad absurdam to ask if that
position could be maintained if it were shown that Jesus never lived.
Although I follow a majority of historians in accepting that it's highly
probable that Jesus did live, there are many who - using the same evidence
- think the probability low. The common factor in both responses is
agreement that evidence
is the means of judgement about probability. The "eye of faith" is, I
think, is an extraordinarily weak position if it argues that anyone should
accept Jesus even though he might never have actually lived as a real
person just as we do.
What are some implications of proposing that the Jesus of faith is
central and the Jesus of history peripheral?
- It implies that our knowledge of Jesus is primarily subjective -
that is, he exists mainly in the consciousness of those who "know" him.
The data upon which decisions are made about Jesus are individual, not
corporate, subjective not objective. The existence, meaning and
relevance of Jesus can therefore only be claimed, not demonstrated,
since there is nothing objective to propose as evidence except personal
experience. This would have applied to early Christians as much as it
may apply today.
- Also implied by a Jesus of faith is that he can be said to have any
attribute which is reported from a personal, subjective experience,
since every personal experience is unique. Some reported attributes of
Jesus may be common to many or even most subjective experiences of him.
But some will be common only to a minority - and possibly even to a
minority of one. Who is to say which is the "correct" Jesus, the person
upon whose attributes many people try to model their lives?
- Jesus, it is implied by this view, could just as well be claimed to
have attributes commonly thought to be inimical to traditional
Christianity. So, for example, it is impossible without a Jesus of
history to refute a claim that being Christian requires the condemnation
of every Jew. Anti-Semitism is evident from the earliest days of the
Church and remains strong to this day as part of Christian tradition.
Only by referring to the Jesus about whom we have good historical
evidence can anti-Semitism be refuted - if, that is, the balance of
historical probabilities leads to that conclusion.
- That Christians have final answers for everyone is a claim asserted
one way or another by large parts of Christianity. As I understand it,
the claim to absolute truth is implied by Christians who assert that
Jesus is the final answer to all life's problems and pains; or that
without allegiance to Jesus there can be no salvation from the
inevitable punishment God meets out to unrepentant sinners.
However, if you and I are to rely on purely subjective experience of
Jesus, then absolute truth is precluded. For who is to say that one
subjective experience of Jesus is true and another contradictory
experience is false? To retain any absoluteness, all subjective
experiences or "truths" must necessarily be compatible with each other.
The entire structure of human knowledge fails if two contradictory
statements can both be true.
- If Jesus is known only subjectively, then those who deny his
existence can't be refuted. Who is to decide which subjective version of
Jesus is correct? The deniers have every right for their subjective
statements to be given credence. If their subjective conclusions are
judged to be false, then Christians (who also hold a subjective vision
of Jesus) must be prepared to submit to the same degree of dismissal.
- If Christians rely on the "eye of faith" rather than the uncertain
and probabilistic conclusions of the discipline we call history, then
the reported subjective experiences of all other faiths must be given
equal weight as true "to the eye of faith" - even if they might not
backed up by good history. A Buddhist's subjective experiences are just
as valid as a Christian's despite any judgement that ancient Buddhist
sources might be historically unreliable.
It seems to me therefore that the subjective Jesus of "faith" carries
little decisive weight for those who accept history as a valid discipline -
though individual subjective experiences of relationship with Jesus may be
counted as real enough. That is, they are "real" in the same sense that all
interpretations of reality are real to the interpreter.
However, if founded on a Jesus of history, subjective
experiences don't necessarily suffer from the above objections. This is
because they can be related to a real person, however shadowy in
Thus if I know x about the Jesus of history and then go on to
claim x + y about him from my subjective experience, the y
factor can be tested against the x factor for compatibility - though
admittedly not for objectivity. If I have a subjective vision of Jesus
as healer, for example, that vision can be matched with the history. If it
is, it is likely to stand up well since there are many accounts of Jesus
healing the sick. But if my subjective vision is of Jesus as ruthless slayer
of the wicked, I am likely to have trouble matching it with any known
historical Jesus. True, Jesus is portrayed as warning of dire consequences
for those who don't accept his message. But these passages in the New
Testament have been convincingly shown to be the work of gospel authors who
derived them from the polemics of early Christian communities in conflict
with the Jewish establishment of the day. The subjective vision of Jesus as
healer is therefore validated by history, that of him as a slayer not.
As far as I know, orthodox Christians throughout the ages have insisted
that theirs is a Jesus of history. As Van Allen Harvey puts it:
... there is a sense in which these religions [Judaism and
Christianity] are preoccupied with history in a way that most other
religions are not. The events which Judaism and Christianity celebrate are
so interpreted as a direct response to history. They guide these
communities in their responses to other concrete historical events ...
[they] have as their focus the life of responsibility in history ... The
basic occasion that constitutes the originating and formative event for
the consciousness of the Christian is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.
So, for example, whether or not one judges that the resurrection of
Jesus from the dead is historically probable, this has been and is a
cornerstone of traditional Christian doctrine. This risen Jesus is
neither a ghost nor a psychological experience born of stress and fear - but
a living, breathing person who, it is claimed, was dead and then got out of
the grave. He walked among humans, ate the same food, walked through walls,
and was then seen going to heaven.
I don't see how it can be valid to rest a case on this historical Jesus
risen from the dead on one hand, and on the other claim that the modern
discipline we call history is of no decisive consequence. For if the
resurrection is an historical event (that is, if the evidence yields a
wide consensus of high historical probability for the event), and if it is
the most important component of the Christian claim, then the overall
historical objectivity of Jesus must also be crucial.
An ongoing problem will always be the variety of conclusions about
exactly what in the New Testament is good history, in the sense that
"good" history is generally regarded as an account of the past which is
strongly probable. "What really happened" is, in effect, usually equated
by historians with "what is highly probable from a consensual assessment
of available evidence".
There is the Jesus of those who judge that the gospels are inerrant, that
every detail they recount is exactly what happened. Then there is the Jesus
who is perceived as entirely mythical, a person of little or no account
despite an interpretive castle of meaning which has been built upon him by
later generations. Thus many differing judgements exist that can be spread
across a spectrum - from inerrancy to those who dismiss the entire Bible as
myth. The truth most probably lies somewhere in-between.
Part of being Christian in the 21st
century is to struggle with the problem of what we can know about Jesus.
We may "know" him in other ways as well - through prayer, or worship or
fellowship to name a few. But these are ways which by their nature can't be
tested except in subjective experience.
Historically, we can know also certain things about Jesus:
- Jesus is not a disembodied spirit. He's human, just like everyone
else. While he lived he did or potentially could do everything
any human can do. To understand what sort of person he was requires
History gives us a good idea of things Jesus could not do, and
of actions which which would have been unimaginably incongruous to his
nature. That is, the history with which we are concerned here is the
history of human beings as a species. What human beings can't do now,
says the historian, they almost certainly could never have done in the
past, no matter what claims might be made (the principle of analogy).
- Jesus lived in a culture very different from ours. We acknowledge
that there are probably many aspects of his life and culture which we
will either never know, or ever be able to fully understand. It may be
that some things (such as belief in demons) can no longer usefully
inform our lives and personal choices. It helps, therefore, to identify
those pioneering characteristics of Jesus which can and should inform
and shape our lives today. We are constantly faced by new challenges as
our world changes. To deal with these challenges we have to try to work
out new Christian responses not covered by traditional teachings. It's
difficult to call any such new responses truly "Christian" unless they
are based upon a Jesus of history.
- Like each one of us, Jesus was unique. Christians recognise that he
began a new way of interacting with the world. Through him millions have
been given a new lease on life. It remains important today as much as
ever before to know as precisely as possible what Jesus did, said and
was. Only by drawing conclusions based on good history can we separate
his unique life-giving initiatives from other initiatives which may
appear to be historical but are actually constructions or
For example, it is traditional for Christians to conclude from John's
Gospel that Jesus was uniquely in touch with God in way nobody else can
emulate or achieve. But such a conclusion becomes much more speculative
when it is clearly recognised as a matter of good history that the
extended monologues in that Gospel are the theological reflections of
the author, and not a record of what Jesus actually said.
- Even while Jesus lived, his disciples began building theological
castles upon what he had said and taught. There is now a high level of
consensus about this point. Most scholars acknowledge that the New
Testament authors all intended to convey certain teachings in the way
each selected material from available sources, assembled it into a
particular pattern, and then produced their particular gospels. Indeed,
there is a growing consensus that the gospels were assembled around
liturgical patterns rather than from any historical concerns.
Very soon after Jesus' crucifixion, Paul built the earliest
substantial Christian theological edifice we know. It is critical to
note that his teachings in each gospel represent the vision of only
one part of a very diverse early Church - one which was preserved
while many others disappeared. There's nothing wrong with accepting
Paul's or any other theology and doctrine as such - unless it
contradicts what we today call "the Jesus of history". That is, the only
Jesus fit for good doctrine is that person founded founded on the high
probabilities we call "good history".
The Jesus of history being built on this website is not intended to be
definitive. What is intended here is
[a] to present an historical Jesus who is highly probable. This Jesus
will change with any new historical evidence or, indeed, with the
presentation of a new and more persuasive interpretation of the existing
evidence. We can be reasonably certain that the man who appears here is the
result of good history. This is a minimal Jesus and the history is "bare
bones" history. But note: it is possible and often correct to go beyond the
"bare bones" Jesus. However, this minimum at least we can be
reasonably sure about.
From this perspective, a minimal Jesus has the advantage of being
relatively unencumbered by the accretions of twenty centuries of theological
tradition. I am enabled to take a new look at the Jesus of a certain place
and the time. I'm then free to re-envision Jesus as a person relevant to my
own person, place and time, recognising that there is nothing inherently
wrong in reinterpreting Jesus in the light of modern insights and knowledge.
[b] It's also intended here to summarise what can be derived from the
historical Jesus. This is necessary if Jesus is perceived as a forerunner
or pioneer. That is, this historical Jesus provides guidelines for
life in any age. To put it another way, Jesus isn't an archetype, a
person we should copy and imitate and whose presence has been once and for
So, is Jesus history? Is he a person in the past, an a-historical ghost
increasingly divorced from contemporary life, a faith-phantom?
Or is Jesus history? Is he a person about whom we know enough to live out
in our own way what he pioneered?
It may be right to say that it is these latter questions, not questions
of so-called "faith", belief and obedience to authority, which every person
today must either ignore or struggle with.
 The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press 1967