Before launching into a series of posts this fall on the gospel of Luke and the Historical Jesus, I thought it might be constructive to ask three important questions about “Jesus studies” in general. I have a high regard for the historicity of the synoptic gospels, although I am more than willing to accept that there are some problem passages. The following questions will set up the tensions we will encounter as we read through Luke.
Can we know anything about Jesus? What is at stake here is the nature of historical knowledge. Can we know anything about ancient historical events? If an ancient writer claims that Apollo came down and had an affair with a human resulting in the birth of a demi-god like hero, modern historians (rightly) discount this as legend. This is how the story of the Virgin Birth is treated in scholarship. Luke (or his tradition) invented the story to make Jesus look like a Greco-Roman hero.
A second historical problem for knowing anything about Jesus is that the synoptic gospels were written some time after the events. How long after the events is important. If Luke can claim to consult eye-witnesses, this would imply a date in the early A.D. 60s. However, for a number of reasons scholars will date Luke in the 80s, written by a second generation Christian who did not know Paul and could not consult eye-witnesses of events now 50 years in the past. There is an assumption that the longer time between event and writing, the more likely legends would develop.
Are the biblical sources about Jesus accurate? The Jesus Seminar dismisses much of the gospels as inaccurate, fanciful, or at best, a reflection of what might have happened to the real Historical Jesus. Much is made of the so-called distinction between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. The Jesus of History is virtually unknown, all we really know about is what the faithful believers who wrote the New Testament said about him. One only needs to know the Christ of Faith for salvation or to be a “Christian,” but that does not mean that one must believe in the Jesus of History the way the Bible presents him.
Did the biblical writers pass information accurately, or were they inclined to make things up to present Jesus in a better light? Based on documents that are clearly later “fanciful” creations of Christians (such as the Infancy Gospel), the gospels are sober and historical treatments of the events of Jesus’ life. Luke is a special case since he begins his gospel with the claim that he is writing a Greek-styled history in the tradition of Thucydides.
Is the supernatural possible in ancient and modern times? The Gospels present Jesus as a miracle worker, walking on water, healing and even raising the dead. The modern worldview, based on Enlightenment rationalism, would never accept these stories because the supernatural does not exist, miracles cannot occur. The same rational mind that dispensed with “ghosts and goblins” also got rid of waking on water.
Post-modernism is likely more open to the supernatural, although it would be antagonistic toward Jesus, they would not rule out the possibility of the supernatural occurring. The problem with post-modern approaches to the Gospels is that the text really does not matter much. That the text claims that Jesus healed people is not as important as the encounter one has with God as they read that text.
For the evangelical reader of the Gospels, there should be no problem with the idea that God did miracles in the biblical materials. Theism as a worldview allows for a God that is both transcendent and immanent, who works within history to accomplish his goals, whether through natural, explainable means or through a supernatural event such as a miracle.
The bottom line is not at all surprising. If you assume the sources are suspect, then there is little int he gospels which can be described as “historical.” I personally think there is a great deal in the Gospels which can be attributed to Jesus rather than the later theological musings of the second generation church – but perhaps that is an assumption as well.