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Studying Jesus As History

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Popular opinion is developing totally erroneous assumptions about the historical accuracy and importance of the Gospels, perhaps at least in part because Christians have been reluctant to study and debate them as historical texts. As a result, we are not taking part in arguments we could win easily.

Of course it is difficult for those of us who view the Gospels as the highest authoritative Revelation of God, and an active force in our own lives, to study them dispassionately as historical documents like any other. Yet it is a plain statement of fact that, quite apart from their enormous Spiritual significance, they are historical documents, written by particular historical individuals in a particular historical time and place about another, slightly earlier, historical time and place.

It is essential that we do not forget this, because their writers themselves considered it essential. Passages like the first verses of the Gospel of Luke and the closing verses of the Gospel of John make it clear that they were reporting facts, things that had actually happened. In other words, their intention from the start was to write history, not literature. The Second Letter of Peter makes the point explicitly, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths... but we were eyewitnesses...” (2 Pet 1.16)

So in treating the Gospels as historical documents we are not being irreverent but doing what the Gospels themselves intend us to do. If they were not historical documents, deliberately written as history, they could not serve the principal function of historical documents, which is to provide factual evidence of their subject matter. In the case of the Gospels, that subject matter is a historical individual in a particular historical time and place in a particular historical context.

If it is difficult to view the Gospels objectively as historical documents, it can be even more difficult for those of us who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ to view Him as a historical character. Yet this is what we are commanded to do. The central mystery of our faith is that the Logos, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, lived and died as a particular carpenter at a particular time and place in human history. The Second Letter of John warns against denying that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (2 John 1.7) – in other words, in history.

The whole point of the Incarnation is that Jesus was a historical human being in exactly the same way as Socrates, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal. His Birth, Ministry, Death, and Resurrection were historical events just like the Trial of Socrates, the Battle of Gaugamela, and Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps.

So there are sound theological reasons why we can and must view Jesus and the Gospels in historical terms. There are also practical, evangelical reasons.

A high opinion of the Gospels as historical documents has been an initial factor in many conversions, including that of the author of this post. Read simply as history, without any agenda, the Gospels are extremely convincing. Jesus’ contemporaries were impressed by the authority with which He spoke. That authority still comes through strongly today in the Gospels, even when they are being read as history without Spiritual intent.

The fact that the Gospels are history is therefore a useful weapon in the armoury of every Christian in fighting atheism and apathy. Perhaps this is at least part of what is meant when the Letter to the Ephesians refers to “the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6.17). Paul’s contemporaries would have grasped the particular significance of the metaphor of the sword: whereas the rest of the armour of God in the extended metaphor is defensive, the sword is an offensive weapon. We should be using it to take the battle to the Enemy.

For, viewed by any objective standard, the Gospels are excellent historical sources. They are near-contemporary, they are consistent with each other and with external evidence, and they present a credible, internally coherent narrative. The same cannot be said of many ancient historical sources. For example, Josephus, the only surviving historian who deals specifically with Judea around the same period, is famously erratic. By his own admission he was an accomplished liar: he once escaped from a tough situation by persuading everyone else to kill themselves first by a suicide pact. The Gospels are calm, sober, and honest. Of course they are biased towards a particular point of view, but then so are nearly all historical sources, especially of this period, and the Gospel writers were biased in favour of the truth as it was revealed to them, not in favour of what it was personally convenient for them to say. After all, they were persecuted and possibly executed for what they wrote. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the greatest proof of their integrity is the way they do not hesitate to include difficult passages. Although accepting some of the things they record requires faith, it is hard even for opponents of the Gospels to deny that their writers were sincere in their desire to record and preserve things that they had seen and heard. So any fair assessment of the Gospels as historical documents ought to rate them highly relative to other contemporary sources. In short, they are good history.

It is strange that most Christians and non-Christians alike appear ignorant of this. Is it perhaps because our exalted view of the Gospels makes us reluctant to engage in debates about their historical value? If so, it is a grave mistake, for we have nothing to fear from such debates. The Gospels are on very solid ground.

Moreover, our failure to engage in debate on that solid ground is ceding territory to the Enemy unnecessarily. It is depressing how often these days one hears things like “Jesus never existed” or “Jesus was a mythical figure” – almost invariably from people with no understanding of the proper meaning of the word “mythical.” Even more depressing are the tedious comparisons with the “Easter Bunny” and the “Tooth Fairy” which those who make them seem to think so amusing and original. They are depressing not only because they are insulting and tiresome, but because our Christian compassion must surely be aroused by the way that those who speak such twaddle are dying because of their ignorance of elementary facts.

So here are a few of those facts which any Christian can use when confronted by foolish denials of the historical truths of Jesus’ life.

Far from “not existing” or being a “mythical” figure, Jesus is one of the best-documented people in the ancient world. Certainly there is no one who was not a public figure or a writer about whom more was written. He was the subject of four separate but consistent surviving biographies written by contemporaries or near-contemporaries – the four Gospels – and a vast literature spanning the three centuries between the Crucifixion and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great. Much of that literature survives: the early Christians were obsessive about keeping accurate written records. Most of the surviving literature is, almost inevitably, pro-Christian, but some of it anti-Christian. Indeed, some of it seeks to exploit Christianity for its own purposes, for it is evident that, almost from the beginning, other religions wanted to associate themselves with Jesus. The early Church was therefore very careful about distinguishing between the orthodox, the heterodox, the heretical, and the anti-Christian, and had specialist scholars engaged in research from a very early stage to ascertain what really was authentic. They were quite ruthless about excluding anything that was questionable. Again, most people, even most Christians, seem wholly unaware of this.

By way of comparison, nearly all of the information we have today about Alexander the Great comes to us from historians who were writing hundreds of years after his death. Although the precise dating of the Gospels is a famously controversial subject, there is no hard evidence to deny their claim to have been written substantially during the lifetimes of people who would have known Jesus personally.

A comparison with that other great victim of state injustice in the ancient world, Socrates, is also instructive. We have two contemporary accounts of the Trial of Socrates written by his friends, Xenophon and Plato. The former was not present, being away at the time on his famous campaign in the Persian Empire, but he probably got a good account from someone who was, while the latter is quite likely to have attended in person. Both therefore had access to the facts, but their accounts differ substantially from each other on several important points. By contrast, the Gospels offer us four contemporary accounts which are broadly consistent with each other. The minor variations between them represent exactly the sort of differences of emphasis we would expect when any event is viewed by separate witnesses from different perspectives.

The ludicrous objection that “we have no archaeological evidence of Jesus” is easily silenced: there is no reason why we should have archaeological evidence. Jesus was what we would call a “private citizen” and, probably, a very poor one. Most people like that do not leave an archaeological footprint. Unlike most, Jesus had an expensive tomb – but, of course, only temporarily.

Indeed, there is little or no direct archaeological evidence of people far more significant in their own time than Jesus. For example, archaeology has still to provide decisive evidence of the route Hannibal used when crossing the Alps, despite the fact that involved at least thirty thousand men, a few thousand horses, and three dozen elephants.

Yet the strongest support at least of the outline of events presented by Gospels comes from anti-Christian sources, and from what they do not say. Many of these anti-Christian sources have not survived and we know of them only from refutations written by Christians. Indeed, it seems to be the fate of anti-Christian writers throughout history to be remembered, if they are remembered at all, only as footnotes in the works of Christian apologists. This will surely be the fate of the celebrity atheists of our own time as it was of their predecessors.

The interesting thing about the earliest anti-Christian writers is that they sought to explain the narratives provided by the Gospels rather than to deny them.

For example, the earliest comprehensive attack on Christianity was written by a man called Celsus in the Second Century. His work has not survived and we know of it only from a refutation written by the Christian Origen which has. Celsus was aware of the Virgin Birth and came up with the rather obvious explanation that it was really a case of illegitimacy. In doing so, he actually confirms that it was accepted that Mary did not have sexual relations with Joseph before the Birth.

An even earlier example is found in the last verses of the Gospel of Matthew which refute the attempts by people whose names are also lost to history to explain away the Resurrection by claiming that Jesus’ Body had been stolen. The significance of this is that these people did not attempt to deny that the Body was missing.

Christianity was under attack from its inception. If its opponents, denying the Resurrection, had been able to point to a dead body, they would have done so. Similarly, if they had been able to produce evidence that countered any of the other principal factual statements found in the Gospels, they would have done so. They never did. One can only conclude from this that they never did because they were unable to do so – because no such evidence existed.

The Romans were meticulous about keeping records. If Jesus had not existed, if He had not been born in Bethlehem, if He had not been crucified in Jerusalem, if His Body was still dead in a tomb, or if any of the other important claims in the Gospel narrative were verifiably untrue, the Romans should have been able to produce paperwork to prove as much. From the time of Nero onwards, the Roman state launched well-organised persecutions of the Christians, accompanied by savage propaganda campaigns, so officials had every reason to produce such paperwork if they had it. That they never did so is perhaps the strongest evidence that no such paperwork existed, and therefore the officials had nothing to contradict the basic claims of the Gospel narrative.

This is not in itself positive proof of the factual accuracy of the Gospel narrative – faith is still required – but it does confirm that its earliest opponents could find nothing in contemporary sources that could support any claims to the contrary.

So we have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from studying the Gospels from a historical perspective, and using history to refute the ignorance of those who claim to base their atheism, or apathy, on what they imagine is fact.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Christology, Cultural Issues, Engage, History, Worldview

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