[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
–Matthew 16:15 (ESV)
How do we live a good life and have hope in the face of our inevitable death? Life unfortunately offers few certainties — we must choose to have faith in something. This faith can manifest in four ways. The first faith is faith in ideas. This is the feature of most Eastern religions. Gautama Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu have more in common with Plato and Aristotle than with Muhammad or Jesus. These religions aren’t asking you to follow their leaders but their ideas, the “way” or the tao. If you believe the ideas and follow the practices of these religions, you will reach enlightenment. The second faith is faith in revelation. Muhammad of Mecca and Joseph Smith of upstate New York were both visited by angels from God and given a secret, special revelation of the Truth. Followers of Islam and Mormonism receive union with God through belief in this revelation. The third faith is faith in community. This is most obvious in Judaism, where union with God is found in joining the “tribe”. This is also the main feature of the world’s polytheistic religions like Hinduism and Shintoism as well as the ancestor worship and tribal religions found in much of Asia, Africa, and among indigenous peoples in the Americas. Your local gods or ancestors are the ones who will guide you through life and beyond death. The fourth faith is faith in your own conscience. This a very popular option these days and is a feature of both the modern neo-pagan and the agnostic/atheist/skeptic. In both cases, truth is found within yourself and is what you make it. A good life is defined by your own reason or spirituality. Every human being must choose to live their lives on one of these four paths.
Jesus the Exception
But there is one exception to this, a fifth kind of faith. This faith is faith in a person. As far as I can tell, this form of faith is only found in Christianity. Unique among world religions, Christianity does not offer hope and salvation by following a philosophy or a taking set of actions or even by joining a particular community. Christians proclaim that a good life and hope beyond death are found by putting your entire life in the hands of a first-century Jewish carpenter and rabbi named Jesus. Furthermore, Christians proclaim that this man was more than just a man: he was the literal incarnation of God, the creator of the universe, and he proved this by rising from the dead. This belief has proved so influential that not only do over 2 billion people follow Jesus, but our entire calendar is based upon the year of his birth. Clearly, this is a man worth knowing something about. But what can we know for sure?
Jesus was a historical figure, a person who lived and died just like any other. This is the unique position and the unique vulnerability of Christianity. Unlike Buddhists, Confucians, or Taoists, we do not believe our founder was merely a philosopher. Unlike Muslims or Mormons, we don’t believe our founder was merely a prophet. Unlike the Jews, we don’t believe that he was just a member of a chosen tribe of people (like Abraham, Moses, and David). All these other religions are beyond historical study in that their founders are asking us to believe things that are, by definition, metaphysical and ineffable. But Christians believe that the historical person of Jesus was (and is) God. This means that we can study him and not just his teachings in order to determine the truth or falsehood of Christianity. Everything hinges on whether or not Jesus is who we say he is.
A Historian’s Faith
I have a confession to make. Despite doing a blog concerned with theology, philosophy, and Biblical studies, I have no formal training in these areas. I am what you might call an enthusiastic amateur. Where I do have training is in history (although I am still an amateur). I graduated from Furman University with a degree in history summa cum laude. I say this not to brag, but to indicate where my expertise lies. And isn’t it lucky for me that the very religion I have been pursuing is the one where my skill set will prove the most useful? Following Jesus and answering the question he poses in the epigraph to this post has been a lifelong journey. Yet I have never, at least in a formal way, put the skills I have acquired as a historian to use in an investigation of the man to whom I have committed my life. And even if I had not committed my life to him, I would still be compelled to such a study. Because more than just our calendar hinges around Jesus’ life. As many scholars have argued, Jesus changed the course of world history more than any single person has before or since (see, e.g., books by historian Tom Holland and sociologist Rodney Stark). Even those who oppose Jesus cannot ignore him. In the dejected words of poet Algernon Charles Swinburne: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.”
I have sometimes called Jesus the “pebble in history’s shoe”. He just doesn’t make any sense. How can a man who never led an army conquer as he has? The only religious leader with close to his following is Muhammad, who was unapologetically a warlord. If you are an honestly agnostic historian, none of it adds up. Of course, Christians say that Jesus rose from the dead and that’s why Christianity boomed, but that is patently absurd. Dead people stay dead. Yet a simple philosopher or teacher, even a martyred one, should not hold this kind of sway over the lives of billions of people millennia after his death (does anybody worship Socrates?). Who on earth was this guy? That is the subject of this series.
History: The Study of Documents
The study of history is founded upon the written word. Indeed, the division of history from pre-history is the invention of writing in Sumer sometime around 3000 BC. Thus, all historical study begins with primary source documents. A primary source is a document written by a participant or eyewitness to an event. When studying a person, primary sources include letters, biographies, court and government records, and the like. Especially when studying ancient history, the closer the document can be dated to the person’s life, the more accurate it is likely to be. It is also preferable to have multiple attestation when making claims about a historical figure. This means that multiple sources record similar events or words. When analyzing these documents, you want to determine not only their date and provenance, but also the knowledge and biases of the authors: did they intend to write truthfully and were they able to faithfully report what happened? Furthermore, you want to make sure that the texts you are using have not been significantly altered either by accident or intention. Again, the more sources you have, the better you will be able to answer these questions. Of course, when it comes to ancient history, we often don’t have that luxury. We must be realistic in understanding that we are reconstructing things that happened 2000 years ago and scientific certainty is not something the historian can count on (also, there is very little “certainty” in the sciences either, but that’s another story!). That said, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the documentary trail around Jesus. Thus, our study of Jesus will largely be about determining which documents we can trust and what they can tell us about this remarkable man.
What about archaeology?
Of course, the other foundational tool for studying ancient history is archaeology. Indeed, the labors of indefatigable archaeologists is why we have the documents that we do! That said, in the case of Jesus archaeology is unfortunately of limited utility. As far as we know, he never wrote a single word. He was not a political leader, so there are no palaces or statues. He was not a general whose armies left behind spear tips or mass graves. He was an itinerant rabbi and thus we are thrown back into the realm of documents. Archaeology can help us to confirm the facts found in those documents — if the details of the primary sources line up with what archaeologists have found, that is a good sign. But archaeological evidence will not be able to trump documentary evidence in determining the facts about Jesus. As we shall see, the remarkable discoveries of the last century or so have shed new light on the ancient world and I will try to tie in those discoveries when they help illuminate the documents. But I will not have a separate section just covering these fascinating finds. For more info, read James Charlesworth (ed.) Jesus and Archaeology and John McRay Archaeology and the New Testament.
I am biased…and so are you
I think here would be a good place to stop and acknowledge the elephant in the room. I am a Christian and thus I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he rose from the dead, and that the Bible is Holy Scripture and the very Word of God. This makes me wildly biased and you may believe that I cannot look at the facts about the historical Jesus effectively. Perhaps. I am only human after all. I do find it interesting however that skeptics who wish to debunk the Christian version of Jesus present themselves, almost universally, as “unbiased”. They are just asking questions and only care about the truth. In many cases, I’m sure they are genuinely searching for the truth and have come to their conclusions honestly. But let’s not pretend for a moment that anyone is unbiased about Jesus. He is, as I have said, perhaps the most consequential person who ever lived and the founder of the world’s largest religion. It would be almost impossible to go into a study of such a man as a pure agnostic. Let’s be clear here: everyone has biases. Rather than pretending that you went into the study of Jesus with no motives, I think it is better to be up front about where you come from and why you’re doing what you are doing.
So why am I doing this study, anyway? Well, I mainly find both Jesus and the study of history fascinating, so it’s just an obvious fit. However, I also genuinely wanted to see how close you could get to the Christian version of Jesus just through using the traditional tools of historical analysis. To be honest, even if the gospels came off badly in all this, I wouldn’t have lost my faith — poorly sourced historical events still happened, even if we have to take them on faith. I am also searching for the historical Jesus to help rebut the claim that all religions are essentially the same and we can’t ever know the “real” truth, so everything is just a matter of personal faith and opinion. If Jesus was really raised from the dead, if the gospel accounts about him are true, that changes everything. Whatever lower-case truths may be found in other religions, philosophies, or ideologies, the capital-T Truth would be found in Jesus. Lastly, the last couple of decades have seen a flurry of publications claiming that the historical Jesus was not who we think he was: that he was married or he never said most of the things he said (h/t Yogi Berra) or he didn’t even exist! What’s more, many allege a conspiracy by the Church to cover up the real truth. These make for great headlines and bestselling books, but what does a sober, historically honest look at the facts reveal?
An Outline of the Series
Assuming I stick with the plan, there will be twelve entries in this series, published every Tuesday and Thursday. Each will endeavor to answer one important question about the historical Jesus and the documents concerning him. Those questions are:
- Did Jesus exist? Are there any non-Christian sources about him?
- What are the earliest records about Jesus?
- Who wrote the gospels?
- Did the gospel authors intend to write biographies or legends?
- Did the gospel authors know what they were talking about?
- Don’t the gospels contradict each other?
- Do the gospels confirm one another?
- Are there other, more reliable sources than the canonical gospels?
- Who chose the gospel canon?
- Have the original documents about Jesus been lost to history?
- Why do many historians doubt the authenticity of the gospels?
- Is the resurrection of Jesus a historical event?
As you might have noticed, I am doing this in conjunction with the liturgical season of Lent. If all goes according to plan, I will publish my post about the resurrection in time for the celebration of Easter! I hope that you will come along on this journey with me. I think you’ll find it fascinating, and I hope to make it a little bit fun, too. May God bless you and encourage you during this Lenten season!
A note on sources
I will include the sources I used and other helpful resources at the end of each post. I will also include a brief annotated bibliography as a final post after I have finished the series. If you have any questions about my sources (or any questions period), feel free to leave it in the comments.