Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 movements.

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 demonstrated.

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 historical terms.

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. [1]

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 historical investigation.
  • 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 interpretations.

    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 always defined.

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.
[1] The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press 1967

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