The Jesus of History: An Introduction (Part 1)

An Introduction

The scandal of Christianity is that it is a religion grounded in historical events, which if they can be demonstrated to be false, would empty it of meaning and all power. Chief among those historical events is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle Paul declares, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”[1] Michael Green was right when he wrote, “Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards.”[2] If Christians are to maintain that faith is reasonable, it will be crucial to establish that not only the events of history in general can be known, but also specific events of the past are true.

Most people when they come to Christ do not do historical research or consider things like the problem of historical knowledge. Rather, they come to know the great truths of the gospel, such as Christ’s atoning life and death, and his resurrection from the dead on the basis of their experience of the Spirit of God. This experience I take as veridical, and a fully legitimate grounding of knowledge.[3] So although the Christian is warranted in believing what happened 2000 years ago without studying history or philosophy, the following entries in this series will concern themselves with exactly that. I will be summarizing the search for the historical Jesus, then assess some of the search’s surrounding dilemmas. It will not be a thorough treatment. Whole books have been written, and still could be, on any one of these issues. I seek only to summarize, explain and briefly offer what refutation can be given. Included will be an assessment of Historical Relativism, the Problem of Miracles, imposing Methodological Naturalism in the study of history, and three methods for establishing historical descriptions.

I begin this journey with a goal in mind: to establish the description of the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel narratives as truly historical. The pen of John Stuart Mill eloquently expresses the same conviction.

“It is of no use to say that Christ as exhibited in the gospels is not historical . . . Who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee, still less the early Christian writers.”[4]

[1] 1 Cor 15:17 (NASB)

[2] Michael Green, Runaway World (London: Inter-Varsity, 1968), p. 2.

[3] Philosophers call these beliefs properly basic. They need not have arguments to support them, for they are bedrock beliefs that are wholly sensible in and of themselves, from which we argue to other things.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Essays on Nature, the Utility of Religion and Theism (London: Longmans, 1874).

7 replies
  1. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    The weird thing is that people are so convinced by their own religious experience; an experience which has nothing to do with the historicity of Jesus at all. If someone could prove that the gospels are nonsense and told no-one, Christians the world over would continue to have the same experiences. Experiences which christians must deny happen within other religions.

  2. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Original Simon,Christians don't have to deny other religious experience. They just have to deny that such experience is veridical. If the beliefs of those who had become convinced though their experiences had defeaters that were known to them, then said experiences would not warrant their belief. But in the absence of defeaters these beliefs become properly basic.

  3. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Mmmn. Yeah, I suppose so. Just as other religions regard christian religious experreiences.There are plenty of defeaters to christianity, and there are plenty to other religions, too. But it is possible to weave a contorted and strange epistemology in order to 'prove' that what one wants to believe is correct. All religions do this.An example is the historicity of the gospels. There are many incredulities within and conflicts between them, but they cannot be demonstrated absolutely as false. To demand so is not a very good epistemology:The Buddhist or Sikh for example, then, who has [very real!] religious experiences attributes them to his religious doctrines. He also claims them to be veridical and then demands that his doctrines can't be proven false.The historical Jesus should be pursued via historical methods, not religious experience. And a historical approach is just not as credulous as a religious approach. After all, how serious would we take a 'historian' who claims that the Koran is the inspired word of god?

  4. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    OriginalSimon,I don't think you mean epistemology – which is a theory of knowledge. I think you mean a "case" or "cumulative argument." I don't see any cause for qualms on epistemological grounds. I'll be analyzing philosophical and historical dilemmas surrounding the search for the historical Jesus using the commonly accepted tools and rules of those disciplines. When this series is over I hope to come back and do some work on the epistemology question.Let me assure you from the outset that the following series will not be presuming any religious doctrine, for instance, arguing from the assumption that the gospels are inerrant or the inspired word of God. If I ever get to presenting a positive case for the resurrection, (which will not happen in this series) I will be treating the gospels as any historian would with any other ancient document.

  5. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Well, no I do mean epistemology. I'm saying that believing a text to be factual unless it can be disproved is a next to useless way of thinking. Neither would it be sensible to assume a text to be false unless proved true. All one can do is arrive at a sensible view of what probably happened; a view endowed with a sensible plasticity.I'd be surprised if you address a true historical consideration of the gospels. I rather suspect you'll address a history-from-within-theology/apologetics. In fact, you have already completely undermined the title by saying "to establish the description of the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel narratives as truly historical" But anywho, you say it won't, so surprise me!

  6. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Original SImon,

    I'm saying that believing a text to be factual unless it can be disproved is a next to useless way of thinking.

    How about a dictionary? Or an encyclopedia? Scientific literature? Or an early eye-witness account of a tragedy?

    Neither would it be sensible to assume a text to be false unless proved true.

    I'll hold you to that if ever we examine the gospel accounts.

  7. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Dictionaries and encyclopaedias are very modern, and they are also very concurent, and pretty dispassionate. And along with scientific literature they are repeatable or cross-checkable. Compare that to a two thousand year old text which is religiously motivated and word of mouth.We get a fair idea, just through experience, about how much we should trust an encyclopaedia entry or a scientific claim. And we know that they are quite trustworthy. Historians also get a fair idea of how much a text should be trusted. Historians, not theologians. Again, I doubt very much that you will even go to the field of History, despite your title.What eyewitness account? I don't think any of the gospels are eyewitness accounts. They are purportedly accounts of accounts of eyewitness accounts…..but of course they are. What else?"I'll hold you to that if ever we examine the gospel accounts. "Good! And like the dictionary or encyclopaedia we shall surely look at a wide variety of religious texts and examine their congruity. And like scientific claims maybe we will look at their predictive reliability.

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