Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Raging Battle For The Jesus Of History

Of a certainty there has been no more controversial subject in historical studies than that of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the head and the Chief Cornerstone of the Christian faith. In Christianity almost every word recorded within the pages of holy writ refer ultimately to Jesus. For the skeptic, and agnostic this poseses a problem of epic proportions. For the question is asked how can we truely know this Jesus of history?

This sort of conundrum has led to a host of various interpretations of history and faith as it pertains to the discovery of the "real" Jesus. It was during the 18th Century Enlightenment that German, Deist scholar Dr. Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768) set forth a totally different and radical view of who Jesus was. He set forth the idea that Jesus was a political and social idealist who never intended to start a religion and failed in his mission to liberate the Jews politically. He gave no creedence to the Jesus of faith or miracles for that matter. (Please Go Here To See Why He Was Wrong)

Partially due to the era of Enlightenment, there have been countless individuals who have set out to define, shape and reevaluate who Jesus was. To display how heated and contentious this subject can be Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) reviving thoughts set forth by German Professor G. Wobbermin tried to solidify the idea that the "historical" Jesus was even different from the "historic" Jesus. The distinction, he claimed, was that the "historic" Jesus was responsible for untold evil and repression of individuals down through the ages, while the "historical" Jesus was a person of meekness who truely sought to help individuals. In essence, in this argument, the "historic" Jesus is a product of what Christians and the church "believe" about Jesus and that "belief" is not necessarily patterened after the "historical" person.

Jesus very own words seems to negatively cap this argument in some way:

Mt. 10:34-36 ~ "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35-For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36-And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household."

Again, there have been countless others such as E.P. Sanders and in more recent times apostates such as John Dominick Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar (The Who's Who Of Apostates), and a host of other agnostic professors some of which have been featured HERE, such as Elaine Pagels, Bart D. Ehrman and James D. Tabor and even atheists such as Robert Price and Richard Carrier that have set forth their own versions of the historical Jesus. So among scholars as we have noted, there is a battle for the historical Jesus.
Dr. John P. Meier, Professor of New Testament at the University Of Notre Dame, in his landmark works "A Marginal Jew- Rethinking The Historical Jesus" Volumes 1-3 Poses a question in Volume 1 of the Series as such:
  • "...what do we mean when we say that we are pursuing the "historical Jesus" or the "Jesus of history"?..."By the Jesus of history I mean a Jesus that we can "recover" and examine by using the scientific tools of modern historical research." ~ Dr. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Rethinking The Historical Jesus Volume 1, (1991 Doubleday) pg. 25.
One of the primary influences within modern scholarship pronouncing the differences between the historic and historical Jesus was German Lutheran, New Testament professor and father of biblical form criticism, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) He rejected the historical Jesus as a basis for faith and claimed the genre of the gospels to be kerygma which he described as a development of preaching, having taken a literary form. Regarding the person of Jesus however, he set forth the following:
  • "...we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary..." ~ Rudolf Bultmann "Jesus And The Word" pg. 14
One of the reasons this is so important and controversial is because we can't and don't necessarily know "everything" about the Jesus of history. For instance, we do NOT know his favorite colors, food, or shoes etc. Other even more significant historical information such as what Jesus did in his intermediate years is still a mystery to us. These are the things that we can only wonder about the Jesus of history, but yet we have received from him enough to evaluate and know the Jesus of our faith.

These thoughts and recent discoveries (1945) of alternate gospels at Nag Hammadi, Egypt have caused some scholars to proclaim that we now have the missing pieces necessary to help us find the "real" Jesus. These finds, however have been less than convincing and in many cases clearly legendary dated too late to shed any light on the person of the First Century Messiah and savior of the world, and contain messages more associated with gnosticism than Christianity in any era.

For the person who doesn't mind delving deeply into the epistemology of their faith and further past traditional biblical studies, these thoughts and this debate quite naturally lead to other questions that I pose and ask you to contemplate and respond:
  • Is the Jesus of history the same as the Jesus of faith?
  • Whom must the Christian know in order to gain salvation, the historical Jesus or the Jesus of faith?
  • Are we required biblically to know the Jesus of history in order to come to saving faith?
As you may tell this is and can be a rather complicated study. We know from scipture that we must believe God in order to receive:

Heb.11:6 ~ "But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

However this verse addresses a matter of faith and not necessarily history.

In essence this post os for them that are into serious analysis of their faith and examination of Jesus. One thing I am confident of is that Jesus can stand any thorough examination that we require. He remains the only figure in history that invites us to emainine him and know his realness. Remember what Jesus said to Thomas:

John 20:24-29 ~ "24-But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25-The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. 26-And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. 27-Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. 28-And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. 29-Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

Thank God, Jesus can stand any examination whether one of history or one of faith.


Picture Courtesy of Greg Webb, Black Jesus Picture Collection

Recommended Resources:
The Case For The Real Jesus ~ Lee Strobel, 2007 Zondervan
Dethroning Jesus ~ Darrell Bock & Daniel B. Wallace, 2007 Thomas Nelson
Reinventing Jesus ~ Komoszewski, Sawyer & Wallace, 2006 Kregel
The Missing Gospels ~ Darrell Bock, 2006 Nelson Books
The Jesus Legend ~ Paul Eddy & Gregory Boyd, 2007 Baker Academic


  1. Pastor Burnett thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting as you can see it's not as deep as your work. But this is a great thinking piece. I have some questions after reading your piece.

    How can we distinguish the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith with out becoming blasphemous?

    How do we strip away the myth from the man? It can't be easy because there's a lot of missing years and just were do you start? I will be checking on the discussion.

  2. Great article Pastor Burnett. I think the fact remains that you must believe what the written word of God says concerning Jesus for salvation. I don't believe any further information is neccessary for salvation. I believe that the word of God provides us with everything essential to salvation, and if there was any other information required He would have revealed it in his word. I do feel however that the Jesus of our Faith has and will continue to stand the test of historical scrutiny just as the Bible in general has and continues to stand the test of its authenticity as a historical document. That is why I think this is a great article because many Christians need to consider this and know that they do not have to be ashamed to have the Jesus of their faith discussed on any level because he will always pass the test.

  3. JJ,

    Thanks for stopping by and please, your blog is wonderful and you’ve got a lot of insightful info out there. I like the article on Uppity especially as it contrasts to how we treat, honor and interact with one another in church sometime…

    This subject is different and I normally would have reserved it for DW2 but I wanted to get the widest array of opinions possible because I think it is an interesting and controversial subject, maybe not entirely at street level yet but certainly in academia and many of those individuals are shaping how many American ministers view the scriptures.

    So far as separating history, faith and myth, I think a good rule to follow would be to remember that Jesus was a Jew and he followed Jewish customs and traditions. There are many modern scholarly efforts to present Jesus as a Greek, hellenized religious/political social activist. This is a mythologization (that’s a made up word too) of Jesus.

    Jesus family is multiply attested in scripture to be a good, religious, certainly Jewish family. The OT is replete with what it takes to be considered a good Jew, honor God only and obey the Law etc. So this is the first divider of the man from the myth. Any account that takes Jesus outside of those boarders and recreates him as a pagan or that is so modern that he is devoid of what HE as the author of the OT required is certainly myth and is plausibly discounted.

    Example; Professor Morton Smith years ago claimed to have found the “Secret Gospel Of Mark” wherein Jesus is said to have a homosexual relationship with a young boy. This was a extrapolation and perversion of Mark. 14:51-52 ~ “51-And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: 52-And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.” Now, come to find out, Professor Morton Smith was a homosexual. He recreated a fictitious account to help justify his homosexuality by creating a historical Jesus that approved of the practice, then assenting to faith in that Jesus. A summary of what would have been Jesus’s OT views against homosexuality is all that would have been needed to distinguish the myth from the man and history.

    This is why understanding the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of history” is vitally essential because these sort of lies are here to stay and are taking on a new tenaciousness approach in challenging the faith of the Saints. So the battle for the historic IS a battle for the faith also.

    So in answer to your observation and question, I believe one thing we can do is look at Jesus through the eyes of First Century Judaism. Many myths then fall by the wayside if we are faithful to that study and understanding.


  4. Detroit,

    I agree with you 100%. I believe that what is preached (Kerygma) is the part essential to salvation, but we're living at a time that people are associating Jesus historically to certain actions in effort to justify their behaviors ie SINS.

    As i stated in JJ's post, I believe that may be one of the primary reasons to look beyond the faith to the historical Jesus so that a new Jesus of faith isn't created in place of the biblical Jesus as described within scripture.

    Escellent thoughts, and please let other's know to chime in. God bless.

  5. Mt. 10:34-36 ~ "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35-For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36-And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household."

    The controversy of this statement alone is enough to radically alter the way the contemporary church preaches and teaches Jesus both in a historical and biblical perspective. While he came to die as a sinless lamb, he was much more agressive and forthright than we give him credit for.

    We teach passive peace and gutless victory, but the Christ of the Bible was a revolutionary, not so much raging "against the machine" but against the powers of darkness which is much more sinister and deadly that some earthly government.

    Pastor B, I agree with you that we have received enough historical facts about Jesus to properly ascertain who he was and his place among us a flesh and blood man. His humanity is well documented in scripture and gives us a sufficient picture to emulate. Should we wonder about other aspects of his humanity i.e. favorite food, how long did he sleep, etc? That may be a case of human nature, but we shouldnt allow that to shape opinions which cant be substantiated in what is written.

    Personally in my mind I have integrated Jesus of history and faith. This synergism is inspiring to me both as a man and a son of God. Frequently, I consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest I become weary and faint in my mind.

    Exceptional article, Pastor!

  6. GCMWatch ~ "His humanity is well documented in scripture and gives us a sufficient picture to emulate.

    Thanks for stopping by my brother. I feel the same way also. I think we have an accurate and discoverable portrait of Jesus within the NT.

    Academia, I believe, has been tricked into believing that Jesus must satisfy cognitive desires before he can be totally validated. They require a Jesus of cognition and human understanding because of their lack of understanding and yielding to the supernatural.

    Then when we can see the culture through the eyes of that century instead of a 2nd, 3rd or 4th century cultural imposition, it becomes even more clear to see who he was.

    I've read countless skeptic, agnostic and atheiest arguments that do just that...totally strip Jesus of his 1st centurty pre-AD 70 culture. When you do that, and then superimpose a 2nd century or later sytandard on him you'll loose the person of history every time.

    Thanks my brother, I think this is good food for thought. God bless.

  7. Pastor Burnett thanks for the information. I would have never thought of separating the Jesus of history from today Jesus. Again thanks!


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