Can We Know Anything About Jesus?

I start teaching Jesus and the Gospels next week, so I thought this would be a good time to review some of the problems facing Jesus scholars when they set out to study the Life of Jesus.  In Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan, 1995), Mike Wilkins and J. P. Moreland use three questions as an introduction to their collection of essays on the Historical Jesus.  I want to use those three questions as an introduction to the study of the Gospels.

The first question Wilkins and Moreland pose is: Can we know anything about Jesus? When scholars approach the study of Jesus on a historical level, the first major problem they encounter is what constitutes evidence for (or against) Jesus. When we read an ancient historian describing ancient events, the modern scholar weighs what is said and judge whether that source is accurate. Some sources are more accurate than others, some sources are accurate in one area but not in others. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus is considered generally accurate about the events which led up to the Jewish revolt, but there are some real questions which arise in his account of his own life.

An ancient source which records miracles or other strange events is often deemed “less historical.” if an ancient document says that Zeus came down from heaven and had an affair with a human woman resulting in a demi-god like hero, modern historians discount this as legend. The modern skeptical biblical scholar may consider the story of the Virgin Birth. The story is simply a legend invented by later Christians to make Jesus look like a Greco-Roman hero.

In a post-modern world view, historical records are written by the “winners” of the war and therefore are suspect. In the case of the study of Jesus, the “winners” are orthodox Christianity, which then suppressed anything that competing with that orthodox view. Elaine Pagels has written several books on the origins of the New Testament arguing that the Gospels have been edited to coverup the earliest Christians were more like Gnostics, the second century mystery-religion that was declared heretical by the church. To Pagels, there are elements of the story of Jesus that were created to bolster orthodoxy. In her 2003 Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House) she argues that The Gospel of Thomas was suppressed by orthodox Christianity because it didn’t conform to growing consensus opinion.

Another example of this post-modern view of history is John Dominic Crossan, one of the more radical members of the Jesus Seminar. He finds very little in the canonical gospels that is of historical value. He expands his search for historical data about Jesus to non-canonical sources, finding hints about Jesus in dozens of documents including the Gospel of Thomas. He concludes that Jesus was a wandering philosopher in the style of the Greek Cynics. In his book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991) Crossan spends a great deal of effort trying to show that the Gospel of Peter has elements that are more historical than the canonical Gospels.

Scholars rarely doubt whether there was a Jesus, the problem is that almost everything we can know about him comes through the writings of his followers.  For a believer, the Gospel accounts are trustworthy.  But faith in an inspired text only “works” for the believer.  That Odysseus escapes the cyclops is only true for those who believe in Homer.  It is possible to argue that Christians are similar, they believe the Bible because they believe the Bible.  For many, this circular faith-argument works.  But the history of the New Testament satisfies our need for accuracy on a deeper level.

The difference between Homer and Jesus is that there are things which we can state are facts of history that appear in the Gospels.  For example, there was a Jerusalem, which was occupied by the Romans in the first third of the first century.  We know that Rome executed political enemies by crucifixion, and we know that many Jews were executed this way in the first century.  This list can be expanded, and in most cases there is no real problem between the claims of the gospel writers and the general flow of history and culture of the period.  The words and deeds of Jesus can therefore be placed into a context in which the either make sense, or they do not.

In the end, we can know quite a bit about Jesus on a historical level from the Gospels.

4 thoughts on “Can We Know Anything About Jesus?

  1. Wow, for a moment I thought you were going mythicist ! Or are you ? The last paragraphs don’t sound dodgy to me:
    – “everything we can know about him comes through the writings of his followers”: most scholars now agree that none of the gospel authors, and certainly not Paul, were ‘followers’ in the sense of witnesess. So what does ‘know’ mean here ?
    – “things which we can state are facts of history that appear in the Gospels”. Doesn’t the same hold for Homer’s works ? Schliemann discovered the ruins of Troy, we know the Greek made long sea journeys, many countries, rulers and towns have been independently confirmed, they fought wars in Asia Minor etc. etc. Does that mean that Odysseus was a historical figure ?

    • Hi Bob, I am not going on liberal here, sorry to give that impression.

      A serious argument against “historical Jesus” from more skeptical scholars is that Christians only believe “because the Bible says so.” That is a circular argument that is not going to convince anyone but the faithful. What I want to do is to show that the documents that we have (Matthew, Mark, Luke for now) are reliable on many historical points, which allows us to “take their word” for points which cannot be confirmed in other ways. The gospels have the “ring of truth,” and where confirmation is possible, the get it right.

      I think that you are right, Paul is the first place to go, since he is the earliest witness we have, and he says he relied on other (earlier) witnesses. Possibly this witness included the sayings of Jesus, since 1 Thess 5 sounds a great deal like the Olivet Discourse.

      I think what someone like Crossan wants is confirmation of things Jesus did and said from outside the Faithful. I am not sure what that would look like, I am not sure people wrote biographies of obscure people or pass around Jewish sayings in the Roman world to the extent that we would have much evidence at all that satisfies him. Eventually I am going to get to the eyewitness factor, this is the first of several questions.

      The Homer thing might have been added to bait that type of a response. The general history of the Trojan war might just be historical, but what is it about Odysseus that would imply his story is true? Not much, since Greeks did not kill Cyclops (Cyclopsi?), nor is there an island of lotus eaters, etc. The NT story is different in that it fits the Jewish world of the first century, even the miracles. A messiah who does not do that kind of stuff would not be a messiah.

    • We have an online MA which is in the works, waiting on final accreditation. Not sure what classes will roll out first, but I am supposed to design / teach the Pauline Lit and Mission course.

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