Historical Jesus - Lesson 2

Rationalists vs. Supernaturalists

You will gain insight into the historical context surrounding the study of the historical Jesus during the Enlightenment period. This era witnessed a shift towards naturalism and rationalism, with a focus on empirical observation and skepticism towards supernatural elements in the Bible. Scholars like Reimarus challenged traditional views, leading to a rationalistic quest for the historical Jesus. While Hume's arguments against miracles are discussed, the text emphasizes the presence of miracle stories in gospel sources and external Jewish sources, highlighting that Jesus was widely acknowledged as a miracle worker in his time. The text encourages both skeptics and believers to examine the evidence carefully and consider the possibility of miracles in historical inquiry.

Mark Strauss
Historical Jesus
Lesson 2
Watching Now
Rationalists vs. Supernaturalists

I. Introduction

A. Shift in Perspective

B. The Enlightenment and Its Influence

C. The Rise of Naturalism and Rationalism

D. Deism: A Non-Supernatural Worldview

II. The 19th Century Quest for the Historical Jesus

A. Hermann Reimarus and His Controversial Claims

B. Reimarus' Interpretation of Jesus' Message

C. The Role of Jesus' Disciples According to Reimarus

D. Impact and Reaction to Reimarus' Work

III. Rationalistic Interpretations of Jesus' Miracles

A. Heinrich Paulus' Rationalistic Views

B. Explanation of Jesus' Miracles in a Non-Supernatural Manner

IV. Contemporary Perspectives on Miracles

A. The Challenge of Philosophical Naturalism

B. Critique of Hume's Arguments Against Miracles

C. The Role of Historical Evidence in Evaluating Miracles

V. The Consensus on Jesus as a Miracle Worker

A. The Presence of Miracles in Gospel Traditions

B. References to Jesus' Miracles in Jewish and Non-Christian Sources

C. The Impact of Jesus' Miracles on His Disciples

VI. Conclusion and Future Discussion

A. The Importance of Open-Mindedness

B. The Need for Rigorous Evaluation of Miracles

C. Criteria of Authenticity in Historical Jesus Studies

  • This lesson delves into perspectives and controversies about the historical Jesus. It examines challenges in studying his identity, showcasing diverse viewpoints. Some vouch for Gospel authenticity, while others see them as human-made legends. These varied interpretations complicate understanding Jesus, to be explored in upcoming sessions through worldviews and authenticity criteria.
  • Gain insights into the Enlightenment's historical context of studying Jesus. An era of naturalism, rationalism, and skepticism towards supernatural Bible elements. Scholars like Reimarus challenged traditional views, leading to a quest for the historical Jesus. Hume's arguments against miracles are discussed, but the text emphasizes the presence of miracle stories in gospel and Jewish sources, showing Jesus as a recognized miracle worker. Encouraging skeptics and believers to scrutinize evidence and ponder miracles in history.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the complexities of conducting objective historical research. The lesson highlights the influence of differing worldviews on the evaluation of Jesus's miracles and introduces Martin Kähler's. Kähler's distinction between the "history" of Jesus and "theological impact" of Jesus is discussed, emphasizing that for believers, the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are one. The lesson also touches on scholars like Rudolph Bultmann, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Dale Allison, who adopted a pessimistic view regarding the possibility of discovering the real Jesus through historical inquiry. Conversely, it introduces scholars who believe in investigating the historical Jesus using rigorous methods. The text presents various criteria used by scholars to assess the authenticity of Jesus's sayings and deeds, including dissimilarity, multiple attestation, embarrassment, semitic flavor, divergent traditions, and coherence, along with their limitations and potential biases. Furthermore, it mentions newer criteria proposed by contemporary scholars to address the challenges posed by the traditional criteria.

  • In this lesson, we explore bias in the gospel writers' portrayal of Jesus. Critics like Strauss and Wrede doubted their historical accuracy, but the lesson argues that their beliefs don't negate their reliability. It highlights Luke's meticulous approach, supporting the gospel tradition's credibility.
  • Gain insight into resolving gospel contradictions and historical accuracy concerns. Learn how summarization, paraphrasing, and interpretation shape history writing. Understand that gospel differences arise from translation and authorial choices, not altering Jesus' authentic voice. Recognize the complementarity of John's gospel with the synoptics, revealing common themes and attributes of deity.
  • In this lesson, you will delve into the intricate examination of whether Jesus saw Himself as the Messiah and Savior. Through the scrutiny of titles such as Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of God, alongside a review of key events like His entry into Jerusalem and the clearing of the temple, you'll gain an understanding of Jesus's self-perception and the ways in which He implicitly and explicitly signaled His messianic identity.
  • You're diving deep into Jesus' multifaceted claims to Messiahship and divine authority, highlighting his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, his symbolic appointment of 12 disciples, his transformative teachings, and his significant miracles. Through the lesson, you recognize Jesus' unparalleled authority to forgive sins and his role as the ultimate judge, emphasizing his unique position in the narrative of faith.
  • In this lesson, you'll delve into the intricate circumstances leading to Jesus' death, scrutinizing the roles of both Roman and Jewish authorities. You'll explore Jesus' own perception of his death, linking it to Old Testament prophecies and understanding its theological significance.
  • Through this lesson, you'll grasp the foundational importance of Jesus' resurrection within Christianity, learn about various theories proposed by skeptics, and understand the evidence affirming its historical validity. Positioned within the broader Jewish beliefs of the first century, the resurrection not only affirms Jesus' claims but also indicates the beginning of a new era, the Kingdom of God, and the defeat of humanity's greatest adversaries.

This course focuses on looking at the claims of Jesus as to his identity and at the historicity of the gospel evidence for who Jesus was and what he came to accomplish.

Dr. Mark Strauss
Historical Jesus
Rationalists vs. Supernaturalists
Lesson Transcript


Welcome back to our study of the historical Jesus. For the first 1500 years of church history, the gospels were viewed almost universally as historically reliable accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. If you wanted to know who Jesus was, you read the biographies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

This perspective, however, changed dramatically in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the period of European history known as The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment saw the rise of the scientific method, where truth came to be viewed as the empirical observation of cause and effect relationships.

The philosophies of naturalism and rationalism dominated the intellectual scene. Naturalism assumed a non-supernatural worldview. Rationalism claimed that reason, what can be logically understood by the mind, was the sole test of truth. Anything that could not be explained in a rational manner, according to the laws of nature, was rejected.

In this context, The Bible came to be viewed not as the divine revelation from God, but as fallible human reflections, no different from any other literature in the world. Supernatural elements in the Bible in particular came to be viewed with skepticism and disbelief.

The religion of deism was the order of the day. Deists believed in a sovereign God who was the creator of all things, but God did not intervene in the natural world or in human affairs. Instead, he allowed the world to operate solely under the laws of nature.

The prime analogy of deism was a watchmaker. Just as a watchmaker makes a watch with components that operate independently, then winds it up and lets it run on its own, so God created this universe with certain unchanging laws of nature. He now allows it to run according to those laws, never intervening in supernatural ways.

In this intellectual climate, attempts were made to explain Jesus from a purely rationalistic perspective. This led to what has been called the 19th century quest of the historical Jesus. That name came from a book published in 1906 by Albert Schweitzer called The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The title in German was "Von Reimarus zu Wrede," From Reimarus to Wrede.

That's because Schweitzer identified the beginning of this rationalistic quest for Jesus with a scholar named Hermann Reimarus, who lived from 1694 to 1768. Reimarus, a professor of oriental languages in Hamburg, Germany, wrote a series of articles defending a rationalistic approach to the Bible. His claims though, were so controversial that he didn't publish them. Instead, he circulated them anonymously to friends.

But after his death, they were obtained by Gotthold Lessing, who published them with the title, Fragments. In one of these, called On The Intention Of Jesus And His Disciples, Reimarus challenges the church's traditional understanding of Jesus and his mission.

He claimed that Jesus's primary message, which was the kingdom of God is at hand, could have been understood only one way in first century Judaism, as the claim to be establishing a political kingdom on earth. According to Reimarus, Jesus had no ambitions or aspirations to establish a new religion. Rather, he considered himself to be a human messiah who would free his people from Roman oppression, and establish the kingdom of God in Jerusalem.

Jesus' hopes were dashed however, when the kingdom failed to materialize. He was arrested, tried, and crucified. His disciples, however, were intent on continuing his mission, so they stole Jesus's body and began proclaiming that he had risen from the dead.

So according to Reimarus, the Christian faith began not through God's vindication of Jesus at the resurrection, but through the lies and deceit of the disciples who faked his resurrection.

While Reimarus' claim that Christianity began through a massive act of fraud has been almost universally rejected by scholars today, his work set off a flurry of research trying to explain the historical Jesus on purely rationalistic grounds. The many books written over the next century-and-a-half did not usually attribute such deceptive motives to the disciples, but many sought to explain Jesus in a non-supernatural manner.

One of the most famous of these was a book by Heinrich Paulus, who lived from 1761 to 1851. In 1822, Paulus wrote a book whose title could be translated as the Life of Jesus as The Basis of a Purely Historical Account of Early Christianity. By a purely historical account, Paulus meant of course a rationalistic one.

For example, Paulus attributed Jesus's healings to psychosomatic cures, or to Jesus's use of secret medicine known only to him. Other miracles could be explained from unrecognized causes. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 was not the result of the supernatural multiplication of loaves and fishes, it was rather a miracle of sharing.

When the crowd became hungry, Jesus began to share his provisions and those of his disciples. The wealthy people who were present saw this example and began to share the food they had secretly brought.

Other miracles were the result of mistaken observation. Following the feeding miracle, Jesus only appeared to be walking on the water, when in fact he was walking near the shore with a mist covering his feet. Even Jesus's raising of those who were dead could be explained rationally.

The raising of Lazarus, Paulus suggested, was actually Jesus's rescue of his friend from a premature burial after he had fallen into a comatose state. A similar theory was proposed for Jesus' own resurrection. Jesus passed out on the cross from exhaustion and exposure, but only appeared to be dead. After his body was placed in the tomb, the coolness of the tomb and the aromatic spices revived him.

Now, few scholars today would propose such outlandish explanations for Jesus's miracles. Yet rationalism is alive and well in historical Jesus studies, and many scholars are reluctant to accept any account of the supernatural. Philosophical naturalism continues to assert that the world is a closed system of cause and effect without outside intervention.

The problem with this claim is that it assumes its own conclusion, a closed system in which miracles cannot occur. But this confuses the scientific method with a naturalistic worldview. As a philosophy or worldview, naturalism or materialism asserts that all reality can be explained through natural laws. The scientific method, by contrast, examines specific cause and effects relationships using experimentation, observation, and repeatability.

While science assumes that the world of matter and energy behaves in a consistent manner, it does not address the philosophical question of whether any reality lies outside of this material world, or whether normal patterns of nature are ever interrupted by an unexplained causal agent like a supernatural force or being.

While miracles are outside the realm of strict scientific investigation, they're not outside the realm of historical inquiry. The question of miracles must first be addressed philosophically, asking the question, are they possible? Then they must be examined historically asking what is the evidence that a miracle has actually occurred?

So let's start with the philosophical question. Can miracles occur? One of the most important advocates of naturalism in Western civilization was the 18th century enlightenment philosopher, David Hume. Hume's primary argument for naturalism was that human experience confirms the absolute consistency of the laws of nature. Since miracles are by definition violations of these laws, it would take an impossibly high standard of proof to confirm any particular miracle. Belief in miracles is therefore irrational.

As mentioned before, one serious problem with this argument is that it assumes its own conclusion, that the laws of nature are absolute and inviolable. But these so-called laws are really observations and hypotheses, human perceptions of how energy and matter work. As science has advanced, many of these hypotheses have had to be modified.

Consider physics, for example. Isaac Newton's laws of physics have had to be qualified by Einstein's special theory of relativity. Physicists don't view the universe today the same way they viewed it a hundred years ago. Not only are Hume's laws of nature not necessarily absolute, but nothing in Hume's argument rules out the intervention of an outside force to alter the expected pattern of nature.

Hume, however, gave four additional arguments to support his claim. "First," he said, "No miracle has ever been attested by a sufficient number of educated and rational witnesses to be proven true. Second," he said, "There is a human tendency to believe the spectacular, things that cause wonder and surprise. Third, most reports of miracles occur among ignorant and barbarous people. And fourth, claims of miracles occur in all religious traditions, thus nullifying one another."

None of these arguments is decisive. It's not just ignorant people who report miracles. There's a great deal of historical evidence from credible witnesses attesting to miracles throughout history. Craig Keener has compiled a large amount of evidence, both ancient and modern, in his two-volume work called Miracles, The Credibility of The New Testament Accounts, published in 2011.

For example, in First Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul refers to 500 witnesses who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. Certainly not all of these were irrational or delusional. Nor is it true that in a pre-scientific age, people were so gullible that they would believe anything. We have many statements from ancient writers and historians expressing the same kind of skepticism toward the miraculous that we hear today.

On the other hand, even in the rationalistic Western world, most people still believe in God and the possibility of the supernatural. While Hume is certainly right that human beings are attracted by the spectacular, and crave things that cause wonder and amazement, this says nothing about whether miracles are possible.

We could present an equally strong counter-argument that people are generally quite skeptical of supernatural claims. All sides agree that caution must be exercised when judging a claim of a miracle.

Finally, it is certainly true, as Hume claimed, that miracles occur in various religious traditions. But again, no one is suggesting that all claims of the miraculous are true, or that fakes and charlatans do not exist. But the existence of fakes tells us nothing about whether miracles ever occur.

So if we cannot rule out miracles out of hand, how should we approach reports of them? The answer is that although the study of miracles is outside the realm of strict scientific investigation, miracles are not outside the realm of historical research. Which depends on the critical examination of written and oral reports, and the study of archeological evidence.

The historian's role is not to assume what could or could not have happened, but to find out what actually happened. Which is more objective, to assume miracles cannot occur, or to keep an open but cautious perspective? Based on our human experience, we might say miracles are unusual, uncommon, and outside the realm of everyday experience. But we should not rule out in advance that they are possible.

A miracle should be believed if there is enough historical evidence to accept it, with a high degree of probability. New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown writes, "Historicity should be determined not by what we think possible or likely, but by the antiquity and reliability of the evidence."

So we turn finally to the question, did Jesus perform miracles? You might be surprised that there is a nearly unanimous agreement today, among both liberals and conservative scholars alike, that Jesus was viewed by his contemporaries as a healer and an exorcist.

The gospel tradition is permeated with the miraculous. Rationalistic quest for the historical Jesus sometimes claim that miracle stories were developed by the church as they gradually deify Jesus over time.

Yet, peeling away the supernatural to find a non-supernatural core of gospel tradition is like peeling an onion. When the last peel is removed, nothing is left. Miracles appear in every strata of the gospel tradition identified by scholars.

They appear in all four gospels, but also in the sources that have been proposed to lie behind the gospels. They appear in Mark, widely viewed as the earliest gospel. They appear in the so-called Q, or the Synoptic Saying Source, which is the source or sources which Matthew and Luke share in common.

They appear in the source called M, which is Matthew's unique material. And in L, Luke's unique material. They also appear in the tradition sometimes identified behind John's gospel, such as the sign source proposed for the miracles in John, chapters two through 11.

References to Jesus's miracles also appear in a variety of gospels genres, including miracle stories themselves. But also pronouncement stories, controversy stories, sayings, parables, commissioning accounts, the passion narratives and summaries of Jesus's activities.

Jewish sources outside the New Testament also refer to Jesus's miracles. The Jewish historian, Josephus, states that Jesus was a "Doer of startling deeds." A probable reference to his miracles.

The Babylonian Talmud claims Jesus was executed because he practiced magic and led Israel astray. While this passage in the Talmud is a strong attack on Jesus and Christianity, the reference to magic confirms that Jesus was viewed by his contemporaries as a miracle worker.

The early church leader, Origin, similarly quotes his second century pagan opponent Celsius, as claiming that Jesus worked certain magical powers that he had learned in Egypt. Again, this is an admission by an enemy that Jesus was viewed as a miracle worker. While this data does not prove that Jesus actually performed miracles, it confirms that he was widely acclaimed as a miracle worker. Even among his opponents.

As we've noted, this cannot be dismissed as merely the ignorant superstition of antiquity. The people of Jesus' day could be as skeptical as people today. The Gospels treat Jesus's miracles not as commonplace, or his expected norm, but as surprising and astonishing to those who witness them. Jesus's powerful teaching in his miracles produced a profound impact among his disciples, convincing them that he was indeed the Messiah and the Son of God.

In conclusion, if we are to enter into dialogue, those who are skeptical of the supernatural must be willing to set aside their skepticism, and at least acknowledge the possibility of the miraculous. On the other hand, those who affirm the miraculous must be willing to examine the evidence carefully and weigh whether or not any particular miracle has sufficient evidence to confirm its authenticity.

In many cases, we must be willing to acknowledge that there is simply not enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion. To judge any particular episode, we need a set of agreed-upon criteria. In our next session we'll discuss the so-called criteria of authenticity that historical Jesus scholars have developed to test the words and actions of Jesus.