Why I Believe in the Historical Jesus

An atheist friend inadvertently challenged me: he gave his reasons why he does not believe that the Jesus of the Christian scriptures was/is who the authors claim He was/is; nor, he admits, does he think that the believers in the second, third, and fourth centuries knew any better about Jesus than did the misguided people in the first century. Simply put, there was an historical figure mentioned by Josephus who matches somewhat the profile of the long-expected Jewish Messiah, and such a person may have been the Jesus who Christians claim to worship, but He is not the Messiah, nor the divine Son of God. 

This worldview is predicated, mind you, on another belief: the notion of a Creator-God is nonsensical. He confesses that he has never understood any necessity for a belief in a Creator, as evolution explains our origins, and that we give life meaning. Some people, because they cannot sufficiently "give life meaning," have created the notion of a God. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, the ancient Romans, the ancient Greeks, the Mayans: all maintain similar stories of a God or gods; all are devoted to their God or gods; and all seek to tell others that their beliefs comprise objective truth. 

People like my friend are innately comfortable with their faith in the self-defeating worldview of evolution, that it answers all their questions, they sense no need for a deity, and thus, for them, the "historical Jesus" is irrelevant at best; at worst such a concept is emotionally and psychologically damaging, at least potentially so. To my friend, my reasons for believing in the historical Jesus -- that I worship Him, love Him, and trust Him -- is a bit "backwoods," meaning, an uneducated, unwarranted, and perhaps superstitious view and practice. My friend is in no sense belligerent about his beliefs, or toward mine, for that matter. He merely thinks that I have a need to fill, and I fill it with worship, devotion, and love for a Jesus of Christian legend. 

As I was thinking over these issues, I thought about the various reasons why I believe in the historical Jesus. But, when I refer to the "historical" Jesus, I am also referring to the Resurrected Jesus. In other words, for me, He is not merely a political figure of history, a social hero, or a mere man of great renown. Jesus is the unique Son of God, Son of a human mother, who lived a sinless life, being the second member of the Triune God, died for the sin of the world, was buried in a borrowed tomb, rose from the dead three days later, ascended back to His Father in heaven, and will return again to judge the living and the dead. 

If I were to concede John Dominic Crossan's views of Jesus, I could not maintain belief in the Jesus I just described. Crossan's Jesus and the Jesus I worship are not the same Jesus. Crossan's Jesus is "a peasant Jewish Cynic."1 But while I reject Crossan's Jesus, I do admire his candor regarding historical Jesus studies: the diversity among historical Jesus scholars is "an academic embarrassment." He continues: "It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography."2 We cannot -- must not -- assume that a person can encounter the four-fold Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, without a proper understanding of the history, culture, and theology of those first-century Jews, and also conclude with a proper view of who Jesus was and is today.

But who gets to decide what comprises a proper understanding of the historical Jesus? John Dominic Crossan? The late Marcus Borg? Bart Ehrman? Craig Evans? Gary Habermas? Craig Keener? E.P. Sanders? Dale C. Allison? Anthony Le Donne? Darrell Bock? N.T. Wright? John P. Meier? Craig L. Blomberg? Daniel J. Harrington? Moreover, who gets to decide on who gets to decide? Whoever is chosen there will always be those who disagree. Whoever is chosen will always be challenged. Each of us chooses to grant authority to those who think like us. What comes to the rescue on such issues, for me at least, is Scripture (which requires faith), tradition and reason.

FIRST-CENTURY EVIDENCE OF THE HISTORICAL JESUS

Craig S. Keener asserts that first-century biographies, such as we find in the Christian scriptures, are tantamount to historical biographies; and that, "although biographies could serve a wide range of literary functions, ancient biographers intended their works to be historical than novelistic."3 Thus what we read in the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John regarding the life and times of Jesus is not merely parabolic in nature, or what could relate to legend, but to actual historical verity. For those who think that these texts contain errors, and thus cannot be trusted historically, Keener remarks: 
Naturally we have a range of works sometimes classified as biography. Yet where these biographies' information is inaccurate, they do not thereby become novels. As some literary critics have pointed out, even when historical works have incorrect facts they do not become fiction, and a novel that depends on historical information [e.g., Philippa Gregory] does not become history.4
Commensurate with these facts, N.T. Wright sets our task before us: When engaging the text of first-century Gospel accounts, we "examine the known actions of the subject (not to exclude words, but to set them in their fullest context), and to see what may be deduced from them." I think this, too, is an excellent starting place, since words alone cannot be examined and thus interpreted apart from the historical reality of context. He writes: "Actions, especially symbolic actions, speak louder than words. Studying actions, especially symbolic actions, is a far-better starting point for the historian than studying isolated sayings,"5 the latter of which is, from my perspective, an embarrassing faux pas of the Jesus Seminar, including the work of John Dominic Crossan.



We possess numerous eye-witness accounts of the historical Person we call Jesus.6 The accounts of His life and His messages were passed on orally through His disciples and others. Yet some, like E.P. Sanders, insist that Jesus' words and deeds were "pulled out of their original context (in his own career) and thrust into another context, the disciples' preaching and teaching."7 When questioned on epistemology, Sanders, like other scholars and laypeople, must concede to the discipline of hermeneutics and worldview. Neither Sanders, nor Wright or Crossan, encounter these texts objectively, void of bias and presupposition. Again, the notion of tradition and reason maintain their proper roles. 

EXPERIENCE

I am not one who would normally appeal to experience; yet I cannot deny that a part of my belief in Jesus is due to an experiential hermeneutic. In other words, my personal encounter with Him has deeply affected my life to such a degree that I cannot deny or explain away the changes belief in Him has effected. I usually do not appeal to experience because the Buddhist, the Muslim, or any other advocate of any other belief could make the same appeal. I have heard and read personal testimonies from a Mormon, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Muslim and a Modalist regarding varying religious-oriented experiences each has claimed. To some of them, my experience with Jesus is no more and no less valid than their own. 

All I can claim about my own life is that, before trusting in Jesus Christ I had no interest in God and all that pertains to Him, or the life to come; neither did I love Him, desire to worship and to follow Him, nor care to live as He would have me live (even though I often fail). While no one is capable of robbing me of this life-changing experience, I also understand its limits as being a viable witness to the historical reality of Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God. My experience will seem relative and subjective to non-believers or believers of some other deity or religion. The truth of my changed life is irrefutable -- that is objective. The cause for this change is attributed to Jesus. Faith certainly plays its role here.

THE BIBLE

From my own experience I have concluded that the Bible -- the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures -- is the single most distrusted book in the world. Both a best-seller and a much-despised and oft-neglected collection of songs, poetry, history and letters, the Bible is revered as the Judeo-Christian holy book for both Jews and Christians, inspired by its author, the Creator of the universe: God. From form criticism, redaction criticism, to structuralism, post-structuralism and social-scientific methods, our approach to a view of its content determines what we believe. For someone who believes the Bible was authored by uneducated farmers and misogynistic fisherman, littered with errors and filled with mere legends and parables, a subject such as the historical Jesus can only maintain one conclusion: the man to whom the Gospel narratives refer as Jesus is a myth.

For someone who believes the Bible has God for its author, at least to some measure, then such a one is granted a greater degree of accepting the words on the page with regard to the historical Jesus. Craig Blomberg writes: "Much skepticism about the gospels' reliability stems from faulty methods used in analyzing the gospels or from faulty presuppositions on which those methods depend."8 With absolute certainty, critics of this statement would make the same charge to Blomberg and others who trust the Bible. Thus we are faced, yet again, with the reality of tradition and reason. But are they enough?

Daniel Taylor, in his book, The Myth of Certainty, writes, "How to find truth, that is the question, and how to know that one has found it. Nothing has so occupied reflective men and women for as long as we have record; nothing has elicited more anguish and struggle. Nothing, also, has created such a climate for despair and irresponsibility as the modern conviction that the word no longer has much meaning."9 Whatever beliefs one holds, certainly (no pun intended) he or she thinks that objective truth has been discovered. Yet we all disagree on so many topics; and even among those of us who have many agreements, we disagree on some point, no matter how minute the issue. 

Taylor continues: "Of the many possible avenues to truth, two of the most traveled are reason and faith. What simple names for activities so complex and diverse by themselves, let alone when brought into relationship with one another."10 I believe in the historical Jesus -- as well as my life-changing experience with Him, and that the Bible is the inspired word of God -- because I reason that such a belief is viable, even probable. 

I also believe that reason is a gift of God to us mortals. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD." (Isa. 1:18 KJV, emphasis added) The reference here to reason, yakach -- to adjudge, to decide, to prove, to argue -- is contextualized within the framework of Isaiah's fallen nature. In other words, the God of Israel, understanding that Isaiah was operating in a post-fall creation-order, still communicated with him by use of his reason. Whatever we believe about human nature, in a post-fall condition, what we cannot deny is the retention of our God-given ability to reason.

But my reason alone is not entirely sufficient. My reason could be in error. We all, to one degree or another, whether knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuate cognitive distortions or thinking (reasoning) errors. We may call it our "judgment." Some have found belief in God reasonable, yet have failed to respond in faith. What we include in the notion of faith is some grade or quality of validity -- a justified true belief. I reason that faith in Richard Dawkins' flying spaghetti monster is not justifiable. I cannot respond to Dawkins' mockery with faith because I have no justification to reason that such an entity exists (and he already knows this -- it is a rhetorical ploy). 

That is not true, however, with the historical Jesus. I have justifiable cause to respond to the historical Jesus of the Gospel accounts with faith, which corresponds with my reason, and am in no sense whatsoever threatened by critics, skeptics, or challenges to this (or, for that matter, any other) belief. Doubters and deniers may present their various cases against my claims, but my faith remains justified, my reason concurs, and therefore I can with integrity believe in the historical Jesus. 

Should I encounter doubt, I can always appeal to reason and faith, even if I cannot answer every question posed against my claims. In closing, Daniel Taylor writes: 
T.S. Eliot sees a certain kind of doubt as inevitable in matters of faith and correctly suggests that one's attitude toward doubt is more significant than one's having doubt. "Every man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own skepticism ... that which ends in denial, or that which leads to faith and which is somehow integrated into the faith which transcends it." The notion of transcending doubt by accepting it into faith, rather than by suppressing it (for it can never be destroyed), is crucial. Perhaps doubt, rather than something to be crushed, can be made to serve faith.11
This reminds me of St Paul's conclusion to the Corinthian believers: "As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn't going to be for nothing in the Lord." (1 Cor. 15:58 Common English Bible) Stand firm, unshakable, in spite of every and all circumstances, even doubt, pressing on: by the grace of God I can embrace my doubts and actually use them to serve and to strengthen my faith in the historical, present, and future Christ. 

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1 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 421.

2 Ibid., xxviii.

3 Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 79.

4 Ibid., 81.

5 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 141.

6 "The primary sources for Jesus were written nearer his own lifetime, and people who had known him were still alive. That is one of the reasons for saying that in some ways we know more about Jesus than about Alexander [the Great]." See E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 3-4. 

7 Ibid., 59.

8 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), xvii.

9 Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 66.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 80.