A reader commenting on this blog asked me some questions about Jesus and history and I thought that they were good questions worthy of a decent response.
Part of John’s comment was:
“So I was curious as to what your specific Christian beliefs were …. where you stand on Christ’s divinity. It’s one thing to say, for example, “God reveals truth to all people, but is known most completely through Jesus, so we are all more complete and closer to the truth if we believe in what he said and did” and another to say “Jesus was fully God and fully man.” It’s one thing to acknowledge “There is good historical evidence, accepted by most secular historians, that Jesus lived, and that he did and said many of things recorded about him,” but quite another to then conclude that everything written about Jesus in the Gospels is 100% pure, bonafide historical fact (like raising people from the dead, having the dead raise when he was crucified, turning water into wine, and other “miraculous” or supernatural things).
“Because my qualm is that there really isn’t any historical evidence for any of the supernatural or divine claims about Jesus. ….. My issue is more that you seem to be over-using the evidence of a historical Jesus to back up narratives of divinity and supernatural occurrences that the same historical evidence would not suggest actually occurred. The historical Jesus and the “Bible Jesus” (let’s call him) are quite different entities.”
This post is my first thoughts on these questions. (Thanks John for asking them.)
How do we know what’s true?
I think we need to start with our basis for believing anything.
Psychologists tell us that we use two different modes of thinking – analytical (systematically assembling and assessing information until we can reach a logical conclusion) and intuitive (making choices more quickly by “gut feeling” or even unconsciously).
You might think that analytical thought is better and more likely to lead to the correct answer, but this isn’t always the case. We need to use both modes of thinking, even in very analytical tasks (Einstein once said “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition …”).
In some situations, for example using the scientific method, analytical thinking will predominate, but in another cases, for example when facing complex questions without a clear methodology, intuitive thinking can lead to better results than analytical thinking.
Thinking about Jesus
Some people want to be able to “prove” or demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ divinity to the same level as we understand simple scientific facts, via analytical modes of thinking, but I think this is inappropriate. Most of the important but less tangible truths in life – for example, ethics, politics, aesthetics, relationships, decisions about our careers and who we see ourselves to be – cannot be decided with such certainty and thus will require a fair degree of intuitive thinking.
So in thinking about Jesus’ divinity, I think we have to start with the strongest facts we can find (analytical thinking), but have to then make a decision on what is the best explanation of those facts (intuitive thinking).
For me, the facts about Jesus and God include what we know about the universe and what we know about humanity from the outside (scientific study) and from the inside (personal experience).
- So the fact that the universe exists at all, and the fact that the cosmologists tell us it is on a knife-edge where any small variation in a dozen parameters would make it impossible for life and likely not existing at all by now, can only be adequately explained (I believe) by God.
- Likewise, human experience of freewill, our sense of right and wrong, our consciousness of self and our ability to think rationally, all seem to point to us being more than simply material.
- Finally, human experience of answers to prayer, healings and mystical experiences are (I think) all better explained by God actually being there than that people imagine these things.
So before I come to considering Jesus, I have very strong reasons to believe in a creator God who cares about ethics, rationality, beauty, purpose and us humans.
According to secular historians, the gospels gives us good information about Jesus, but with a lot that is uncertain. Some historians accept the supernatural, some do not. Most agree that there are mistakes, or interpretations, or literary devices, that mean we shouldn’t take every word as literal infallible fact, but that there is plenty there to go on and build a picture of Jesus. For example:
- Almost all historians accept that Jesus was known as a miracle worker, regardless of whether they believe he actually performed miracles (some do, some don’t).
- Most accept he was seen, and probably saw himself, as a messianic prophet and teacher.
- A majority seem to accept that his disciples had visionary experiences of him alive after his death, regardless of how we might explain them, and that his tomb was indeed found empty, even if they doubt some of the empty tomb accounts. Some historians (e.g. NT Wright) argue that only a literal resurrection can explain the historical facts we have.
The choice we face
So we face a choice. Based on the generally agreed historical facts, what is the most reasonable explanation for the claims made about Jesus that the historians do not fully agree on?
I cannot “prove” from all this that Jesus was divine, but I believe it is by far the simplest and most likely explanation for all those “facts”. If he wasn’t divine, why did people believe that he did miracles and was resurrected? Did they make up the stories (deliberately invention), or did the stories grow as legends, or were they honestly mistaken?
Did Jesus claim divinity?
John says, quite correctly, that “it’s not historically clear whether Jesus actually claimed divinity himself or whether that was a later addition”.
But there are many hints to Jesus’ divinity in the gospel accounts, and it does seem to be established that worship of Jesus alongside God, and thus some form of belief in his divinity and resurrection were part of christian belief from the very early days, and were certainly not a later legend.
Many other miracle-workers?
Some say people were gullible in those days and easily believed in the miraculous, and that there were many messianic miracle-working figures in those days. But historians I have read say this isn’t true.
No-one of those days was believed to do miracles like Jesus, and no figure was comparable to him. New Testament scholars Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz can say: “Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus.”
The closest was perhaps Apollonius of Tyana, but it seems that some of the stories about him were copied from christianity, and his life and claims weren’t really comparable.
Many today nevertheless believe that Jesus was no more than a would-be rabbi-prophet whose belief in God’s action on earth were ultimately shown to be mistaken. That is one possible explanation.
The only other possible explanation is that he was indeed divine, however we may understand that. All other explanations don’t really pass the historical test.
The choice I make
Granted my conviction from the evidence of the world and humanity that God exists, it is no surprise that I believe the christian belief is a far more likely than the failed prophet explanation. It better explains the character of Jesus, his teaching and apparent miracles, his apparent uniqueness and his disciples’ response after he died.
Jesus and present-day christianity
I nevertheless agree that the Jesus believed by many christians today (and disbelieved by many sceptics) is not the Jesus of history and of the gospels.
We humans have a tendency to venerate and worship, and to claim ownership of Jesus in ways that distort the truth. For example, magnificent cathedrals with elaborate rituals conducted by priests in highly ornate regalia, white-suited televangelists asking for money, gun-toting patriots, gay hating abortion clinic bombers, and hippies who accept all things as equally good, all seem to me to have put a thick layer of their own interpretation over the historical Jesus. This may be so he better serves their purposes, and allows them to avoid his uncomfortable commands like unconditional forgiveness, love for enemies, avoiding materialism and unnecessary religious rules, and being sensitive to the poor and outcast.
Doubtless we all can distort or ignore Jesus to some degree, but we surely need to keep ourselves anchored to the Jesus we can read about in the gospels.
Theologian Miroslav Volf grew up in Croatia and Serbia, and observed the terrible treatment of opposing religious and ethnic groups during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, where Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs committed appalling atrocities apparently in the name of their religion. He contasts the “thin faith” of many of the so-called christian combatants that allowed them to behave so badly with the “thick faith” that is required to truly follow Jesus’ non-violent teachings of forgiveness and love for enemies.
I can’t help thinking there is too much thin faith in Christendom today, and too little thick faith, and this explains so much that is unattractive in the church today.
In the end ….
So that is why I believe that following the Jesus of history is as close to holistic truth as we humans can get, and a far more historically justified option than not following him or only superficially following him, and one far more likely to lead to a meaningful life. Of course I don’t always live up to those aspirations, but I keep trying and God is forgiving.
The ultimate “proof” is found in living. I have lived this conclusion for about 55 years, and have so far found it seems to “work” and be true. No matter how hard I explore and question my beliefs, and change them in many ways, the core remains, as true as ever and a light to my life. The last test will be when I die, but I feel happy to wait for that final confirmation!
Further reading (on this site)
Photo: I have seen this photo several times (first here) but with no attribution. If I shouldn’t have used it, please tell me and I’ll remove it.