Despite predictions about postmodernism doing away with supposedly “modernist” questions about objective facts, questions about the Jesus of history continue to be thrown at those who preach the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
I was recently speaking to a highly intelligent woman who asked me about the sources of our knowledge of Jesus. I briefly took her through the Graeco-Roman references (in Mara bar Serpapion, Thallos, and Tacitus) and those in Jewish writings (Josephus, in particular)—references that, for most of my colleagues in secular ancient history departments, put Jesus’ existence beyond doubt. I then started to list the Christian ones, the Gospels, Paul, and so on, at which point she stopped me and said, “But surely you can’t use those. They were all written by religious believers.” She somehow got it into her head that religious devotion disqualified Christian texts from being considered by historians as historical texts also. A long (and happy) conversation followed as I tried to clear up some common misunderstandings about the writings of the New Testament.
The so-called religious nature of Christian writings in no way diminishes their value as historical sources. Historians take the Christian agenda into account when they analyze the New Testament, just as they take the imperial bias into account when studying Tacitus or the Jewish bias when reading Josephus. But historians do not place the New Testament in a special category called “religious literature.” Indeed, in Australia’s largest public university ancient history department (Macquarie) you will find undergraduate and postgraduate courses like “The New Testament in Its Times” and “The Historical Jesus.”
Professional scholars approach the New Testament as they would any other first-century text. They do not treat it as the Word of God, as believers do, but they do accord it the status of a valuable historical text. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that historians (no matter what their persuasion) universally regard the New Testament writings as the earliest, most plentiful, and most reliable sources of information about the Jesus of history. If readers are in any doubt about this, they should open up any of the major texts on the historical Jesus—whether by Marcus Borg and Geza Vermes at the more skeptical end of the academy or Dale Allison, John Meier, and Richard Bauckham in what I call the scholarly “middle”—and they will discover that, whereas the Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Gnostic sources are treated in a matter of 10 to 20 pages (often much less), the New Testament texts provide the principal data for the remaining several hundred pages.
After 200 years of academic criticism of the New Testament, virtually everyone agrees that there are no better sources for knowing about the figure of Jesus than the Gospels (and the sources scholars think they can detect within them) and the letters of Paul. Christians are often scared of the conclusions of critical scholarship, or naively dismissive of them. The reality is, mainstream study of the New Testament (as opposed to the nutty fringes) is nowhere near as unfriendly toward the gospel as some fear. Of course, history cannot prove (or disprove) the theological content of our faith, but many of the events behind the theology are regarded by secular specialists as well grounded. Jesus’ residence in Nazareth of Galilee, his baptism by John, his kingdom eschatology, his critique of Israel, his clash with the priestly elite, his establishment of the Twelve, his friendships with sinners, his extraordinarily high view of himself in the divine purpose, his (broadly) salvific understanding of his looming death, the crucifixion itself, and the claim of his followers afterward that they saw him alive again: All of this and more would be accepted by mainstream scholars, whether Jewish, agnostic or Christian, as historically sound. Admittedly, this doesn’t include the doctrines of sin, penal substitutionary atonement, or free grace, but their absence is due to the epistemological limits of the historical disciplines per se, not some lurking contrary evidence. You and I can preach Christ in the happy confidence that Jesus’ life and teaching, his reputation as a healer, his death by crucifixion, and the near-immediate claim of his resurrection all look pretty solid when viewed from a purely historical point of view.
The gospel will always invite the kinds of doubts shared by the woman mentioned earlier. And there is a very simple reason why. Our message concerns history. Unlike the Hindu Upanishads, which focus on the believer’s merger with the life force Brahman, or the Buddhist Tripitaka, which emphasizes extinguishing self and suffering, or the Islamic Quran, which centers on the nature and practice of submission to God, the gospel centers on a series of events said to have occurred in Roman Palestine between 5 BC and AD 30. This makes Christianity particularly open—some would say vulnerable—to the kinds of questions skeptics ask. The logic is simple: If you claim that something spectacular took place in history, intelligent people are going to ask you historical questions. And on the whole, Christianity has welcomed this.
The gospel places its head on the chopping block of public scrutiny and invites anyone who wishes to come and take a swing. The good news is that the more they “swing.” the more robust our message appears. We have pretty much exactly the sort of evidence you would expect to find if the core of the Jesus story is true and decidedly more evidence pointing in that direction than you would expect to find if the story were fabricated. The evidence is not probative; our skeptical friends still have plenty of wiggle room. But the “dent” in the historical record is significant enough for any fair-minded person to accept that, whatever its explanation and significance, the life of Jesus really looks as though it took place in much the way the Gospels say it did.