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Setting Out On a Quest | Historical Jesus Series 5

Derek Caldwell

This is part 5 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 4 here.

Quest for the Historical Jesus

I want to briefly address what is known as the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” (so named due to Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book by the same name) in order to differentiate a bit from what is being attempted with this article and what is sought after in the quest. This quest was essentially the catalyst that led to what will be discussed soon, the notion that perhaps Jesus was not a real person at all. But these two things are not necessarily synonymous, and while there may be certain aspects of the quest that will be discussed here and in future articles, this is not meant to be an interaction with that particular field of study.

When discussing this quest, we are also discussing the issue of bias. While Christians are often associated with having biases when it comes to studying Jesus (whether it be the Christians like me trying to prove something today, or Christians of the first century trying to proclaim what they saw), non-Christians and skeptics are also biased in their research. The whole search for the “Historical Jesus” starts with an assumption that the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history, the “real” Jesus, are two different people. It has not proven it; rather, the quest believes it, and seeks to find the data to prove that foregone conclusion.

This quest arose out of Enlightenment-era skepticism where there was a (largely Deist) desire to reject traditional Christian forms, beliefs, and most importantly, authority. Scholars of this quest sought to “strip Jesus of the doctrinal layers allegedly said to be tied to him by the early church, so that only a historical Jesus should remain.”[1] Renowned scholar Larry Hurtado explains,

the project was never simply pursued in the interest of historical knowledge, but always with additional motives, and by scholars who happen to align themselves with some form of Christian faith or (for various reasons) do not do so. And for scholars of both kinds of stance, historical Jesus work is not innocent of personal concerns. Anyone doing historical Jesus work who claims to have no such motive or concern is either deceitful or charmingly self-deceiving.[2]

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight thinks history is important and should be studied and utilized by Christians, but he finds the field of quest studies not helpful for the church. This is not a “bury your head in the sand” approach, but rather an honest appraisal at what may be fairly described as a dubious field of research. Unlike other fields of study, this one has yielded almost nothing of certainty or agreement, and its whole goal is to reconstruct Jesus, as if He needs reconstructed. Reconstructed to what and from what, though? Was he a sage or an apocalyptic prophet (or something else, with the assumption being He can only be one or the other)? The only source with substantive information about Jesus himself is the New Testament (other sources we will talk about later are helpful to establish the historicity of Jesus and fill in details about the early church, but they do not add to anything we know about Jesus Himself). “There is no such thing as uninterpreted history,” McKnight states, and “there is no access to the ‘real’ Jesus apart from the constructions called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and other narratives about Jesus from the ancient world. The Gospels are interpretations of Jesus, not simply records of facts about him.”[3] Ultimately it is a field of study that is to some degree a field of opinion, for “the conclusions of each of us are too close to the theological starting point of each. The close relationship between what one believes and where one stands on a variety of spectrums matters more than we care to admit.”[4]

I do not think we have to be quite as skeptical as McKnight, but he does raise many good points that should give us pause. They should also help us put in perspective the critical notions of certain scholars within this field of study and elsewhere who reconstruct Jesus into non-being. They are not the detached observer of history that they may seek to be and may seek to be seen as. Interestingly, though, we rarely want detached observers when trying to get to the truth of some matter. We want people with integrity who witnessed or were part of events in question to speak to us.

Another highly respected New Testament scholar, James DG Dunn, rejects many of the Historical Quest’s presuppositions about knowing the truth of Christ’s life. He does not find the idea that faith prevents a clear historical view of Jesus very persuasive, and therefore there is no reason to a priori claim that the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are different. He writes that “the quest should start from the recognition that Jesus evoked faith from the outset of his mission and that this faith is the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission.”[5] Put simply, the disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus—and they remained followers of Jesus—because of what they saw in the Jesus “of history.” And so, their beliefs in Jesus should not be discredited because of their faith, especially if their faith and beliefs are directly derived from what happened in history. “The point is obvious,” Dunn explains. “The earliest faith of the first Christians is not a hindrance or barrier to our perceived reality of what Jesus did and said and the effect he had. On the contrary, the impact thus made by Jesus is itself the evidence needed by those who want to appreciate the character and effectiveness of Jesus’ mission.”[6]

With the cautions concerning the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in mind, we now enter into a different but related sort of field where we ask the question: did Jesus exist at all? By being aware of our biases, and by attempting to merely see what is rather than what we want, I believe we will discover a real Jesus who lived and breathed.

Did Jesus exist at all?

We have very little reason to deny the existence of Jesus as a historical reality. Indeed, there is little reason to doubt the reality of his existence or the New Testaments as reliable historical witnesses to his life. That doesn’t mean that someone must agree with the conclusions the authors of Scripture (and those they interviewed) made about their experiences. Rather, as many critical scholars note, there is good reason to believe that the disciples genuinely believed everything they wrote and said—even in the bodily resurrection of Christ—for, as Boston University’s Paula Fredriksen explains, “All the historical evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw”[7] and this conviction of their seeing the risen Christ “is [part of] historic bedrock, facts known past doubting.”[8]

One might ask, then, why we do not hear of Jesus in non-Christian sources closer to the time of his life? There are a few items to discuss here that might illuminate why this may be the case.First, the New Testament depicts the resurrection of Jesus as something that nearly instantly made people believers in all that Jesus had said about Himself, even people who did not believe in Jesus’s identity before, such as His brother James and the Apostle Paul who had been a persecutor of Christians. The issue, then, is that as soon as someone becomes a believer, our modern sensibilities would tell us that they can no longer be trusted as dispassionate, unbiased observers, regardless of what they had believed before. In this, we have created a Catch-22, for by applying our modern standards to the ancient world, we have arbitrarily disqualified the most qualified people for speaking on the life of Christ: those who lived with and knew Him. In the ancient world, the best witness was the one who was there, in the action, and understood not just the facts of the case but the meaning of them. By ancient standards, the New Testament gospels are the best and most expected sort of biography.

Second, a question we must ask ourselves is this: why would we expect to have any non-Christians writing about Jesus that early on? Gary Habermas is helpful here again in describing other limitations of the day. The first century was not a time of advanced news communications (advanced news communications are relatively recent inventions). “Any number of events, persons, or situations,” he explains, “could be newsworthy in a regional setting and get hardly any attention on the international scene.”[9] Also, in an age where everyone is a blogger, it can be difficult to understand that there were relatively few ancient writers who would have necessarily been very selective about what they wrote about. This is not the day of 24-hour news cycles reporting on everything just to fill the time. Rather, as stated above, most news of a person was written by followers of that person, unless of course they (or their followers) made such a huge impact that others were forced to write about them. “At the beginning, we cannot be sure that Jesus or the earliest Christians made any such international commotion.”[10] Now, there is some evidence that perhaps we do have a bit of early writing about Jesus from non-Christians, but it is far from conclusive. However, if it were real, it is the type of thing one would expect to have been written about Jesus in those early years. But more on that later.

It is quite telling, then, that we start having non-Christian accounts of Christ once His followers have increased in number and are being harassed and killed. To most people, Jesus would have simply been another Jewish messiah figure who attempted to overthrow Rome and died. This is a poor understanding of Jesus, but it is the story they would have received. In other words: there is no need to take notice. Most people probably expected the movement to die after Jesus died, if they had heard of Jesus at all. Now, it is quite possible that Jesus was written about by non-Christians shortly after His lifetime, but we have no reason to expect those writings to have survived (although, as we will learn in the case of Tacitus below, they may have survived through the writings of others). I’m not making an argument from silence here; rather I am pointing out that for an ancient writing to survive it would most likely have to be written about an important person (or someone perceived as important at the time), so important that there would be multiple writings about him or her, and they would be copied over and over again by a community who cherished them or found them historically relevant. As it happens, this is what we find with the New Testament, which is the most widely attested collection of ancient documents that we have today.

Now, there is no entirely successful reason yet given to discount the documents of the New Testament as reliable sources, written by and including information from those who lived and worked alongside Jesus and several who thought themselves eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. You are free to disagree with their interpretations of what they saw, of course. But there is no reason to favor non-Christian writings more than Christian ones in this era, especially since, as alluded to above, one’s biases could have simply made them disagree with the Christian message. When we look at the worlds of Celsus above, we don’t see someone taking a neutral look at Christianity and giving a fair assessment; rather, we see someone who already disagrees with Christians and uses his incredible (and acerbic) wit to ridicule them. Christians have faith in something that runs up against the biases of all around, and demonstrably against their own former biases. If anything, these followers of Christ are the ones who should be considered the most credible sources we could have, since all of them had to confront their biases—and overcome them—in order to be counted among the faithful.

What you will notice as we look at some non-Christian sources that mention Jesus is that, though they were not written during his lifetime, some are still written within the lifetime of people who would have known Jesus. Josephus, for example, wrote his account somewhere between the years 90 and 95 AD, about the time John wrote the Book of Revelation. This is the tail end of that generation, of course, but it’s not as if they are basing anything that they say on the New Testament writings. No, it seems as if all of these authors are basing their observations on other sources—other writings lost to time, other critics, or the testimony of Christians themselves. What you will see no author doing is trying to make the claim that Jesus was not a real person. Whether Jew or pagan, the non-Christian authors we will hear from, some of whom had a particular disdain for Christians, never question that Jesus was a real person. The crucifixion of this messiah figure, while perhaps not considered earth-shattering to the world at large (yet), was still somewhat well-known. Pagans thought what Christians believed about Jesus was superstitious, but they never claimed Jesus wasn’t real. Jewish authors thought that what Christians believed about Jesus were fabricated lies, but they didn’t doubt the existence of Jesus. It is safe to hypothesize, based on what we do have, that any documents no longer in existence would have also assumed Jesus was a real person; and, therefore, we can also safely posit that the lived memory of non-Christians would be in agreement. To all of them, it is assumed that He lived. This is unlike our assumptions about Jesus today. Whereas today someone may, say, write an article or strike up a conversation that discusses Jesus, with or without the assumption (based on their beliefs) that Jesus was a real person, these ancient authors had an assumption of His existence the same way I could have an assumption of the existence of JFK even without audio or visual material: people remember him and they’ve told me about him.

This is part 1 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 6 here.

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[1] Darrell Bock, “The Historical Jesus: An Evangelical View,” in James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy (eds.), The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 250.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, “A Response by Larry W. Hurtado,” in Darrell L. Bock and J. Ed Komoszewski (eds.), Jesus, Skepticism & the Problem of History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 343.

[3] Scot McKnight, “The Historical Jesus and Witness: The Problem is Not Method but Results,” in Bock and Komoszewski, 356.

[4] Ibid., 353.

[5] James DG Dunn, “Remembering Jesus: How the Quest of the Historical Jesus Lost Its Way,” in Beilby and Eddy, 203.

[6] Ibid., 204.

[7] Quoted in Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 60. Source: Interview by Peter Jennings in Peter Jennings Reporting, “The Search for Jesus,” aired June 26, 2000 on American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

[8] Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 264.

[9] Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidences for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 66.

[10] Ibid.