Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Jesus of History: Brief Introductory Notes

Jesus of Faith?

Caveat: I am not a historian or biblical scholar. I have an amateur interest in the topics espoused. My views are the product of reading widely upon the subject over many years and therefore subject to my own personal interpretation, prejudices and analysis.

It is my contention that Jesus exists in two distinct states: the Jesus of history and the Jesus of theology. The Jesus of theology is a chimaera; a beast of many parts. A series of parts that do not always fit in a harmonious whole. I consider the Jesus of history as virtually unknown and mostly unobtainable. A viewpoint from theology determines the Jesus we would like to see. Often this Jesus is a reflection of our personal theology. This Jesus is mirrored in the austere reclusive monk or the American televangelist sporting a wig asking ‘parishioners’ for money to fund his new jet plane. There is a host of other Jesus’ of faith. A Jesus for all faiths and for all men. This Jesus interests me in only so far as it relates to the original historical figure of Jesus. For me, the Jesus of theology belongs to human sociology and psychology. My interest in the Jesus of history might intrigue my readers as I’m an unmitigated and unrepentant atheist. And here is why: Jesus is, without doubt, the single most important person to have influenced and fashioned Western society and history over the past 2,000 years. I would argue that his influence was not direct but due to the energies of one remarkable man, Saul or Paul of Tarsus- but that is another story. There are scholars who believe that Jesus did not exist at all and that he belongs to the realm of mythology; no more real than King Arthur or Hercules. I do not want to become mired in this debate, today. I would just like to say that, on the available evidence, I believe that Jesus existed as a biological entity 2,000 years ago.

To reconstruct the ‘Jesus of History’ we are totally reliant on the New Testament Gospels. Extra Gospel references are rare and possibly reworked by enthusiastic Christians. If we want to discern the historical figure of Jesus we must turn to the books of Mark, Mathew, Luke, John and Acts. Perhaps we should add Paul’s letters (and letters of others) to this list although I suspect there is little of historical worth in Paul’s letters as, strangely enough, Paul seemed completely uninterested in the historical Jesus. This is a great loss to historians as Paul’s letters represent the first Christian writings and predate the first Gospel, Mark, by several years. The first epistles of Paul have been dated to 49AD.

An important point: None of the Gospellers or Paul was a witness to the historical Jesus and relied on oral tradition to flesh out their Gospels. Paul certainly had access to Jesus’ disciples and spoke with Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, in Jerusalem. This makes Paul’s disinterest in Jesus, the man, even more, galling as he would have had access to the historical Jesus through people who actually knew him. History cannot be told by ‘what if’ and we must be bound by the historical information we have. Therefore we are reliant upon the Gospels written at various times after Jesus’ death (?30-?90 years post mortem). The written Gospel, Mark, in part at least, reads like a historical narrative. However, neither Mark or the other Gospel writers were historians in the modern sense of the word. If history is present it appears to be present almost as an afterthought. The Gospels are primarily testaments of faith and the historical Jesus must conform to the Gospeller’s own theological agenda. This does not mean that the historical Jesus is not present in the bible, it means that his remains remain hidden and mostly dismembered. It is the scholar’s job to get his hand’s dirty and dig deep into the layers of theology and mythology and remove the bits of historical anatomy and attempt to piece them together to form a whole man. An impossible task perhaps, but not entirely fruitless.

Although the New Testament, in its present form, has been around for some 1,400 years, it is only in the past 200 years or so that scholars have scrutinised the bible openly for the historical Jesus. This is not to say that previous theologians didn’t ask pertinent historical questions, I'm sure they did. However, they mostly kept their research unto their breast unless it conformed closely to dogma. To do otherwise courted the epithet, ‘Heretic’ and after the 5th century AD, death.

So how do we get the religious texts to give up the Jesus of history? Firstly, historians treat the Bible with a heavy dose of scepticism no different from other ancient historical writings. The bible does not receive any reverential treatment in this regard. Clever theologians and historians have devised a series of methodologies in order to squeeze a little truth from the biblical narratives. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 14 techniques. I don’t have space to analyse these different tools from a rather extensive toolbox, so will briefly consider two ‘slash and burn’ techniques. These methods are perhaps the easiest for the none specialist to understand and conform to a common sense approach. Rational historians have no truck with anything which smacks of the miraculous. This removes wholes swathes of the biblical record. Many Christians would argue that this technique emasculates the biblical message. This, however, is a consideration of the Jesus of faith and lies outside our remit. The historical Jesus must shed the physical reanimation of the dead and the walking on water. Other miraculous events must also be dealt with equal harshness. In a scientific and philosophically sophisticated world, miraculous events, or the suspension of natural law and causation, is an impossibility. Obvious mythologising must also go as well. For instance, the nativity stories in Mathew and Luke, apart from being incompatible, are clearly contrived devices to get Jesus to be born in Bethelem. Both stories are rather daft and totally implausible but they represent a way of dealing with the uncomfortable fact that Jesus was born in Nazareth contrary to biblical prophecy concerning the birth of the Messiah. The Messiah is to be born of the Davidic line and to be born in Bethlehem.

The above is a very simplified look at an extremely complex, convoluted and fascinating area of study. I entreat my readers to research the topic for themselves- wisdom is but a Google away. To do this topic justice would require a large number of separate posts of varying complexity. This post is a supplementary post on a series of posts I’m writing on the development of Christianity. The first in the series can be accessed here. Further posts are in development.

Jesus of History?



  1. Fascinating -- very much looking forward to future posts.

    Perhaps not eh!


  2. FYI - read this?

    1. Thankyou for the reference- I was unaware of this mighty tome. It seems an interesting read. I'm tempted to purchase forthwith.

  3. Being only semi-literate and a skinflint, I found this documentary of interest:

    I wouldn't bother reading the comments!