The Quests for the historical Jesus have attempted to find who the true Jesus of history was apart from the full testimony of the Gospels, but by understanding how important stories were passed down in ancient times and how those stories have come to us, Christians have great reason to trust that the Gospel accounts accurately portray the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth and that the claims of the Gospels are historically validated through the events themselves.
The Quests for the historical Jesus have attempted to find who the true Jesus of history was apart from the full testimony of the Gospels, oftentimes questioning the historical validity of much of the Gospel accounts. However, we must first understand that ancient history (and history in general) functions both as recorded events and perspectives on those events. Additionally, one must not block God’s action out of the story, especially if he is a major character in the narrative. Instead, we can see that historical events point to divine action, especially in the resurrection accounts. Major differences in cultural understandings also play a role in judging the historicity of an ancient narrative; the modern historian must make sure that they understand ancient references as accurately as possible to the ancient culture. The Gospel stories were passed down orally, a process that we have great reason to trust and respect, and so were inculturated deeply within their ancient contexts. This accounts for some of the variation that we see in the accounts and should not give us reason to doubt their validity.
The pursuit of the Quests for the historical Jesus has been a complicated and sometimes confusing business. Some argue it is best to opt out, but the problem is that for those who have questions or are skeptical, staying out of this discussion leaves the impression there are no answers to the skepticism. When a person questions if the Bible carries persuasive warrant for an idea, then what does one appeal to in order to make people pause and reconsider? However, in speaking about the Quests, one also needs to be aware of history’s own limits in dealing with such questions, as well as how it might best work. We will examine those issues.
How Doing History Works and Its Limits
It is important in dealing with questions about ancient history to be aware of how history works and its limitations. We are almost always dealing with judgments about probability in discussing history since our hard data are limited in terms of what has been found, and so our evidence is partial versus what originally existed. One must always remember that what we have is not all there was; new findings may impact what we see.
Another issue is that it is one thing to say an event took place and another to discuss the interpretation of that event. More confidence often exists when we ask, “Did this happen?” However, when discussing what an event meant or means, the issue becomes more complicated and often multi-dimensional. In other words, history gives us both event and perspective. Thinking about perspective includes how one experienced an event at the time versus what we see when being able to look back on it. Both levels are historical but in distinct ways. Writers can choose to tell us from either angle or mix them together.
The Gospels reflect all of this and sometimes it is hard to pull the merged angles apart. In fact, we should not even try to do so. The Gospels give us event and perspective, and sometimes that perspective includes perceptions that emerged from the event down the road based on reflection versus being tied to the event at the time. All of that is still historical, for history is dynamic and is connected to a sequencing of events when it is important history. Sometimes those seeking the Historical Jesus forget all of this as they debate authenticity and historical accuracy. Knowing how history works and how it can serve us is important as we think about the Quests. It also is important to be aware of history’s limits, as that explains some of the variety of opinions we see about what history tells us.
Being Open to God Working
The challenge of Scripture’s claims to history is certainly impacted by how the historian approaches the question. When God is the major actor in the story and a historian doubts if God exists or acts, we have a clash before a word of the text is even read. On the other hand, can history even show that God is at work? Some argue history is not capable of such a judgment. All that can be done is to show that something unusual took place that defies simple explanation. In one sense, that is all history can achieve; it is one of its limitations. But there is more. In the Gospels, Jesus sometimes makes the argument that in order to understand what you cannot see, you must first take a look at what you can see. For example, when he heals the paralytic and claims that his sins are forgiven (something that cannot be seen), he goes on to say that one might know the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins when he says to the crippled man get up and walk––and he walks. The healing points to another reality. When that man walks, the authority of the Son of Man to forgive sins is demonstrated. The unusual act which is seen points to a message where what is claimed cannot be seen. No wonder the miracles were called signs!
The resurrection works the same way. It says God did something unusual here, this also authenticates what Jesus was teaching and claiming. It is an act of vindication for the Gospels. And they have good reason to make such a link, given the empty tomb and the change in perspective the disciples had as a result. Now this is still a judgment claim, a perspective, but it is one put forward with good reason and points to the real possibility of a God who works in his creation.
Appreciating Cultural Background
Yet another element in utilizing history is understanding cultural scripts or context. Some practices are framed by how they were seen. Evoking meaning does not require much when the reader and writer share the culture. As later readers, we often do not share that context and can easily miss the point. As an illustration, if one says, “The Cowboys are going up to the frozen tundra to melt the Cheeseheads,” that is a perfectly good English sentence. But if someone does not understand the cultural clues, that sentence reads like nonsense. In fact, an Arab learning English using an Arabic-English lexicon could look up every word and still not understand the sentence. It is a cultural script. To one who knows the culture, the sentence is clearly about American football. To others, it makes no sense, or at least the meaning is missed.
In the Gospels, several things are rooted in cultural understanding that scholars and historians work hard to grasp and explain. One example is when Jesus claims God will raise him up to sit at God’s right hand—how does one understand that claim in the monotheistic worldview of the Jews? There are but two options. It is either blasphemy or it is divine exaltation to a status where God shows Jesus shares divine authority. Either could be right conceptually in the culture. However, God’s action, Jesus claimed, shows the answer and makes the choice. This is what is at stake in the resurrection. That perspective rests in part on a cultural understanding of what monotheism means when God demonstrates that Jesus shares his unique authority and position. This is a perspective placed on an event rooted in the idea of God’s uniqueness and his own actions. It is a solid conclusion rooted in the direction events take us. It is understood when one appreciates the cultural context in which it functions.
The Nature of Orality before the Gospels Were Written and Memory
Another element in the historical Jesus discussion is what took place in the passing-on of the events before they were recorded in the Gospels. This process is rooted in the oral culture that dominated ancient life. Books were uncommon, and so recording things in written form was also quite rare. There has been much study of this process as well as work with memory issues in more recent times alongside the Quest. This area is still debated, but a solid case can be made that ancients were careful about how they passed things on when it mattered. Memory studies show that although memory “leaks,” the gist of what took place is more frequently than not remembered accurately enough.
In making this point, it also is important to recall that how we present an event can be cited directly or summarized and/or paraphrased. In other words, how an event is reported has variation and reflects a writer’s choice. This idea is paired with the fact that what is remembered about Jesus was recalled by a community and involved events regularly repeated in retelling these stories. These factors add to our ability to be able to have confidence about what has been passed down even when it comes to us with some variation. What was recalled was not the mere recollection of a single person, and it involved scenes that were retold often until they were recorded. That retelling might include some variation, but the core of the story is consistent. What is important to see as a historical matter is that the gist is consistent and can be trusted. It is likely the case that those who spent three years with Jesus on a regular basis knew and communicated faithfully what he said about himself as standing at the center of God’s program and being far more than a prophet. In particular, studies by Kenneth Bailey and Robert McIver survey where such discussions on orality and memory stand today.
Able to Trust the Result
Presenting ancient history is a complicated undertaking, which is why it is often so discussed. Devout Christians claim there are good reasons to trust what the Gospels say about Jesus, and they do so with good reasons. The idea of event and perspective means that sometimes what the Gospels say about the Christ of faith reflects what emerged from the historical Jesus upon further review and with a knowledge of subsequent events impacted by his presence, but these reflective portraits are tightly connected to the original and do not represent a distortion of who Jesus was and is. The variation we see in the accounts does mean there are some details that get discussed and debated as judgments are made about how to fit everything together. That is part of what comes with the limitations of history and judgments that it requires. Still, the core picture of Jesus presented as a unique and central figure of God’s program with a clear message of calling people to God through him portrays what these sources show, sources that are deeply enough rooted in history that they can be probed and respected for what they tell us.
- Darrell Bock, Who Is Jesus?
- Darrell Bock and Ed Komozewski, eds, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History
- Darrell Bock and Robert Webb, eds., Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus
- Kenneth Bailey, “Informal Controlled Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Themelios2 (January 1995), 4-11
- Robert McIver, Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels