And he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8.28)
For the last three years I have been associated—perhaps identified is a better word—with something called the Jesus Project. Enough has already been said and written about that for me (mercifully) to be able to avoid another “introduction” to its aims and objectives.
This essay therefore is about something else. It is about why we should care about the historical Jesus
My guess is that there are just as many people who sort of believe in God as there are people who sort of believe in Jesus. But the two beliefs are different. The existence of God can be argued theologically or philosophically. If theologically (using archaic language) the proofs are usually called “demonstrations” and include some of the classical arguments of the theistic tradition—such as Anselm’s and Thomas Aquinas’s five ways. It is quite convenient for philosophers to have these arguments because they don’t have to go about inventing their own. They can simply take aim at these rather good ones and fire away, and top it all off with a heavy syrup of philosophical naturalism. If that last sentence sounds mildly sardonic it is because I think we are living in a post-naturalistic world and that philosophers had better find another island to swim to. Theologians at least believe they have someone to save them.
“Believing” in Jesus can be argued historically or theologically, but not philosophically. Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown. The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events. For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Jesus of Nazareth would be very helpful. But we do not possess such a record. Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and interested reasons for retelling his story. And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.
Having said this, I don’t mean to suggest that the gospels are made up, that they are like Greek myths, though bits are, or that they possess no historical value. The Iliad is Greek myth, mainly made up, perhaps seven hundred years older than the earliest gospel, and yet seems to point (however obscurely) to actual events that transpired six centuries before Homer (?) immortalized them. Herodotus, who lived more than five centuries before the gospels, is known to us primarily as a purveyor of history, but freely uses mythology and the supernatural without totally discrediting the stories he has to tell.
Why then, it can plausibly be asked, can we not assume the gospels point to events that transpired within (say) a generation of their tellers’ lifetimes? It would be more unusual not to find the mythical and supernatural as part of their fabric than to find precisely the kind of documents we possess—especially coming from a class of writers who were not historians or literary craftsmen.
Belief in the existence of Jesus can also be argued theologically, but I am not good at it. Paul does it this way by quoting (we assume) a hymn in Philippians 2.5-11. It locates Jesus in a cosmic time-frame that might be Gnostic except for the emphasis on his death and exaltation. The Eucharistic narratives do it this way as well, by making Jesus the centerpiece in an unfolding drama of betrayal and martyrdom. The crucifixion story is as much a theological memoir as a historical one—or rather a peculiar blending of two interests, a kind of intersection between historical expectation and super-historical completion. The earliest church fathers, especially Ignatius of Antioch, saw Jesus not just as the fulfillment of prophecy but as the way in which prophecy acquires its meaning through the Church. The Quran also depends on the existence of Jesus, but rejects certain elements of the Christian story in favor of Islamic interpretation. Still, without the gospel its own claims are fatally jeopardised. The increasingly elaborate theological framing of Jesus may distract from the fading image on the canvas, but it is the enthusiasm for ever-more ingenious frames that kept the historical figure from disappearing entirely.
These theological arguments are better described as constructions of the “reality” or necessity of the human Jesus, and lead to various controversies that historians have left it to the theologians to sort through. In effect this has created a kind of scholarly apartheid in which secular historians have treated the theological debates of the fourth and fifth century as the weird preoccupations of a bygone era, while (except among scholars who represent Anglican and Roman Catholic orthodoxy) many contemporary theologians regard the debates in just the same way.
Yet these debates irreversibly coloured the picture of the historical Jesus and created in his place the Byzantine cosmocrator who ruled the aeons. The one-personed, two-natured Christ, the hypostatic union (the doctrine that Jesus is both God and Man without confusion or separation of natures) would probably count as myth if it had more of a story line. But at all events the fully divine and human Jesus had become a theological necessity before the end of the second century. The historical presupposition was buried in this controversy, if it had ever existed independently.
Given the “two ways” of approaching the question of the historical Jesus, it may seem a bit strange that the theological comes first. But there is simply no evidence that the early Christians were concerned about “whether” Jesus had really lived and died. They became Christians because of the gospel, and the gospels were preached, not read—except by very few. If there is one cold, hard, unavoidable historical datum that virtually everyone who studies the New Testament can agree on, it is that the early Christian community existed and came into existence because of the gospels.
It may well be true that the beliefs of these communities were as varied as coloured buttons for more than a century. But the Jesus they “proclaimed” (a good first century verb) was part of a story, not a doctrine—a story they believed to be true. You can’t go very far into the second century without seeing the story becoming clouded with doctrine and definition, however.
The church fathers and the Gnostics were really two sides of the same obscurantist process: the Gnostics needed a Jesus whose humanity was transparent or unreal, the church fathers needed a Jesus whose humanity was real but disposable. It is not surprising that the disposable won out over the unreal.
The resurrection stories, as they lengthened, seemed to suggest that a kind of transformation took place in the hiatus between death and being raised from the dead. In other words, the historical (human) Jesus who rose from the dead won out over the Gnostic Jesus who does not, not because the gnostic story is fabulous but because the familiar story was human—grounded in history. Paul seems to have caught on to the market value of this fact very early (I Corinthians 15.4-8)
The historical Jesus is not important in the same way that a Roman emperor’s existence is important –that is, as a simple causa prius to his being declared divine, or (for example) as a way of averaging human and divine qualities, as the ancient world was fond of doing with demigods and heroes. We tend to forget that men of the fourth century, confronted with defining the humanity of Jesus, still had the images and stories of Achilles, Dionysus and Heracles in view. It was not a thoroughly Christian world, but a world still infused with the seductive images of demigods and their courtesans—the same world whose attractions Clement had anguished over a hundred years before Nicaea. Saving the saviour from that kind of emulsion prompted some of the more intricate doctrines of the early period.
The preservation of the humanity of Jesus came at the expense of his historicity. In making sure he would not be confused with Caesar, Apollo or Mithras, they focused on the way in which he was God and how God became man. At the end of the makeover, however, no first century Jew remained to be seen. Even a spirit-struck Pentecostal preacher who has only the dimmest idea of what Chalcedon was all about calls on a “Jesus” who was born there—a man-god who can walk on water, heal the blind and save from sin.
The historical Jesus is important because he is a presupposition for the faith that millions of people have placed in non-historical consequences, and not only Christians. His status if primarily significant to Christians is also important, in different ways, to Jews, Muslims, and even unbelievers.
I do not know whether the recovery of a Jesus after two thousand years of theological repair is possible. John Henry Newman died in 1890. He was buried in a wooden coffin in a damp site just outside Birmingham. To the disappointment of many, when he was exhumed as part of the normal process for canonization in October 2008, no human remains were to be found—only artifacts of wood, brass and cloth. We are considerably better off of course, in the case of Newman. The grave site was known, we have letters, diaries, treatises, biographies, the memories of friends and relatives—even his own instructions for burial. But that is because he was a man living in an age of documentation, and moreover a man of some prominence and means. We have photographs, and well into the twentieth century the recollections of people who had known him or heard him preach.
Everything we think we know historically about Jesus points in a more depressing direction: a man of no prominence, living in a widely illiterate age in a backward province, even by Roman standards, with few friends who could have told his story. Yet the story is oddly similar—a remembrance of a life, wisdom, preaching, struggle, and death. One of the fathers of the Birmingham oratory on being told that Newman was not to be found in his grave replied calmly, “It’s enough that he was here.” In the long run, that may be all that can be said about the historical Jesus.