A lot of books have been written about Jesus. It’s not really surprising. An obscure boy from nowhere becomes perhaps the most influential person who ever lived. A third of the world believes he was divine.
And so the books keep rolling off the presses – or off the keyboards these days when anyone can be a published author. Everyone can have an opinion about Jesus!
Everybody’s doing it?
I have come across several books about Jesus written by people who make no claims to be scholars, plus several others who claim to be the equal of scholars though they have no qualifications. Most authors are non-believers, though some are believers of various viewpoints.
After some soul-searching, I have decided not to reference these books, so that criticisms are not personal. But I do think this phenomenon is worthy of comment.
History vs imagination
Scholars have long complained that anyone who writes a book about Jesus tells you more about themselves than about him. And why not? We’re all entitled to an opinion about such a famous and polarising character.
But writing history is a different matter. We’re not all entitled to have a view about facts. We are free of course to think what we want, but we know facts by evidence. And our opinions don’t change the evidence.
But many who write about Jesus will tell you they have some new facts to consider – one offers “new information”; “a very controversial, eye-opening expose” says another.
What’s not to like?
People have had a go. They have put in the work necessary to read up on their topic and then get it all into book form. All credit to them. But there are some common historical problems too ….
We know history through people’s memories, written down or reported, and through artefacts uncovered by archaeology.
In the case of New Testament history, relatively little of the writings and artefacts of the time have remained to this day and been discovered. The writings are in languages unfamiliar to most of us – predominantly Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic – and the writings and artefacts belong to a culture far removed from ours in space, time and mores.
If we’re not careful, we’ll interpret things by twenty-first century western standards, and most likely get it quite wrong.
Expert knowledge: the antidote to cultural distance?
The only way to even partially overcome this cultural distance is deep study of the ancient languages, writings, archaeology and culture. This takes years, perhaps a lifetime, plus access to documents and papers, and most of us don’t have time or opportunity for that.
But we do have time to read the experts and take notice of what they have worked out. We don’t have to believe exactly what they do, but if we depart too far from their consensus on the historical facts, we are starting to ignore evidence.
The Bible as history??
One of the most common historical mistakes is to tacitly assume that because the New Testament was written by christians with a religious agenda, it is irrelevant to historical study. So often people say that “we have no evidence for Jesus apart from the gospels”.
That’s not completely true anyway, but it is like querying the historicity of Caesar’s invasions of Britain because the only contemporary accounts were written by him, and therefore self-serving.
In reality, historians are aware that most ancient documents had agendas, whether religious, political or philosophical, and they take this into account in assessing the historical value of documents. The life of Jesus is actually very well understood historically – Bart Ehrman concludes: “We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period” and Helmut Koester has said:
Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript; if there are half a dozen or more, one can speak of a rather advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. But there are nearly five thousand manuscripts of the NT in Greek… Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.
A favourite claim by some critics of christianity is that Jesus is merely a copy of other pagan “dying and rising gods”, and he is as mythical as they are. The stories, they say, arose many years later.
This is a theory that was popular among scholars a century ago, but virtually none think there is any evidence for it any longer (see Was Jesus a copy of pagan gods?. If you research the references people give in support of this notion, you’ll find most of them are a century old, or from people with little academic background who reference very old scholars.
These days, almost all historical scholars recognise that Jesus and his teaching arose from a quite well understood first century Jewish background.
If we are writing opinion without any pretensions to historical accuracy, or if we want to present a viewpoint which makes a particular group (whether believers or disbelievers) feel comfortable, then it is quite reasonable to be very selective about who we read. There is a place for that.
But if we are presenting our views as being historical, it is surely important that we read all sides to the question, and rely most on consensus of scholars, the middle ground between the extremes. Yet it isn’t always so.
It is well worth checking who an author most relies on, and whether they build their case on supposed facts attested by the majority of scholars. We should be suspicious of any book which sensationally claims to have shocking “new” information – do we really think that an amateur can uncover a fact from antiquity that thousands of scholars have somehow missed?
Massaging the evidence?
There are many examples of sceptics ignoring or misreporting evidence, hoping that readers won’t actually check the facts. Examples include:
- Sceptics who believe Jesus didn’t exist have to explain away two references to him in the Jewish historian Josephus. I have seen some claim that the majority of scholars believe the references are fakes (later interpolations), when in reality the majority of scholars believe one is a genuine reference with some interpolations, while the other is totally genuine.
- Interpolations are a favourite way of some sceptics dealing with historical facts they find inconvenient. With ancient documents being copied by hand (until the invention of the printing press), there was certainly opportunity for interpolation by scribes, but scholars generally only accept this solution where there is evidence in the form of stylistic changes or the existence of copies with different texts.
- It is sometimes claimed that if the Jesus story in the gospels was true, other contemporary writers would have reported the story, but none do. But we have few contemporary (i.e. within decades of their lifetime) biographies of ancient figures, so the gospels are more contemporary than most. Most of the writers that “should” have reported Jesus don’t show any interest in Jewish Messiahs (their interest is more in imperial history), and the references we do have (mainly Josephus and Tacitus) are about what you’d expect. Critics here are applying the standards of the modern information age to antiquity.
- It isn’t uncommon for sceptics about Jesus to claim that the modern historians who write about his life as history are “christian apologists”. In fact many of them are atheists, agnostics and Jews, as well as liberal christians and scholars who don’t express any personal view, and they would doubtless be either amused or angry at being called apologists. Perhaps some are theologians, but if they have relevant qualifications, hold academic positions and have papers published in peer-reviewed journals, it hardly matters what title a critic gives them.
- Those who argue that Jesus was a copy of pagan gods (which includes the films Zeitgeist (2007) and Religulous (2008)) sometimes present details from those stories quite inaccurately. Often they quote writers from more than a century ago who misquote and misrepresent the ancient stories and myths – see, for example, Egyptian god Horus and Jesus.
- Some critics argue that Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus, and therefore he couldn’t have existed either. But in fact archaeologists have discovered houses and artefacts that clearly indicate a small village in the middle of the first century (see Were Bethlehem and Nazareth real places?).
Another tactic of critics of christianity, whether deliberately or not I cannot say, is to attack aspects of christian belief which most historians would agree is doubtful, and then suggest this shows that the whole historical evidence for Jesus is compromised. For example, many sceptical writers point to apparent discrepancies in the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, and argue from there that the gospels cannot be regarded as historical.
But this is too black and white. Historians are quite familiar with rejecting some parts of an ancient text as unhistorical, while accepting other parts. Many christians have no difficulty with the thought that some or all of the birth stories are not historical and possibly weren’t intended to be understood that way.
Some writers distinguish between “gospel Jesus” and “historical Jesus”, again assuming that it has to be one or the other. In reality, there was one Jesus, some of the stories about him are believed to be genuine by most historians, a few are generally believed to be unhistorical,and many of the stories are uncertain (i.e. they cannot be verified or rejected by historical analysis). Rejection of some stories doesn’t lead necessarily to rejection of others.
What’s going on?
Jesus was, and is, a confronting character. According to the historical evidence, we can know some significant things about his life and message, and what the historians tell us can be a challenge to us.
The facts of Jesus’ life can be explained either by him being truly the son of God, or by him being a mistaken prophetic teacher. Many scholars hold one or the other of those views. But it seems that, in their enthusiasm to avoid either of those views, some sceptics want to dispose of the evidence that the scholars generally accept.
And so we seem to have Jesus inventions – books by non-experts that ignore established facts, build on the often extreme views of a minority of scholars and others, and present idiosyncratic views of Jesus and history.
The rest of us have little need of such books. There are plenty of readable books by knowledgable scholars that will inform rather than misinform. If you want a sceptical viewpoint, try Bart Ehrman or Maurice Casey rather than someone who’ll lead you astray. If you want a christian view by a credible historian, try Tom Wright or John Dickson.