Can We Know Anything About Jesus?

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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.