The Historical Jesus

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: The Historical Jesus

I. The Spectrum of Historical Jesus Research

We are ready for the largest section of this particular class, a survey of the life of Christ. In chapter 10 of Jesus and the Gospels, we deal with two introductory topics which we will supplement with brief remarks. The first involves the quest for the historical Jesus. In our text discussion, we described and defined the first and second quest and then surveyed the landscape in terms of the third quest for the historical Jesus. The survey, there, takes a thematic approach in terms of the major picture of Jesus of Nazareth which emerges from different definable movements within the third quest. Our PowerPoint slide takes a complimentary but somewhat different taxonomy in approaching the issue from the point of view of a spectrum of historical Jesus research from the far left to the far right, corresponding to the left and right of the diagram as well. In the 1990’s, John D Cramton, who taught New Testament in DePaul University at Chicago and also Markus Borg, still teaching at Oregon State University were the co-chairs of the famous Jesus Seminar that over the course of the decade voted on all the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus, not only in the canonical Gospels, but also the Gospel of Thomas, classifying and coloring them in one of four categories: red, pink, gray or black, according to decreasing probability in whether Jesus actually said or did something like what the Gospels in question described.

Although Cramton is a bit more liberal than Borg, the two are reasonable close together and illustrative at the left hand of our spectrum. Though, as the diagram suggests, one could certainly find New Testament scholars even further to the left. Both agree that the historical evidence that can be unearthed by scholars wearing purely historian hats neither presuppose or exclude religious belief of any kind. Overall, more supply the lack of accuracy of the record of the Gospels, not least with respect to the life and teachings of Jesus than they do the accuracy, particularly when one includes the Gospel of John, considerably over half of the Gospel data, indeed a sizeable majority, are to be attributed to the theological perspectives of the early church and not to the actual historical events to the life of Jesus. In the middle of the spectrum, we find a recent representative, Timothy Johnson of Emery University and Divinity School at Atlanta, Georgia; his book, the Real Jesus. The bottom line of historical evidence is irrelevant when it comes to determining what a person should or should not believe about the authenticity or accuracy of the Gospel record. Johnston’s approach reflects that of many, so-called middle of the road scholars, who keep historical method and religious belief in separate categories, where one, need not influence the other. Historical evidence alone may, in fact, only disclose support for a minority of the Gospel data, but that’s not necessarily and adequate reason for us to disbelieve that information. On one hand, the vast majority of all historical evidence has simply been lost. On the other hand, the very nature of religious belief presupposing faith rather than scientific proof, suggests that there may be good reasons for people to believe in spite of the paucity of the evidence, reason which are not based on historical data or argumentation, but because of more personal or existential or experiential matters.

The right hand side of our chart shows N.T. Wright and Craig Blomberg (the lecturer of this series). Now, Blomberg has a more conservative outlook on the inerrancy of Scripture compared to Wright. In this camp and common to both, is the conviction that even just wearing the historian’s hat alone presents enough evidence to collaborate or support, if not fully prove the authenticity of a significant majority of the data of the Gospels, Note that Blomberg would perhaps go beyond Wright in his thinking. With three such different basic positions on the spectrum of historical Jesus research relating to the relationship of historical evidence and Christian belief, one could be quickly forgiven for asking why such radical differences among varying scholars exist.

II. Why the Differences?

The next slide suggests three important answers but by no means comprehensive. First, there are different presuppositions among the different camps and perhaps the most significant is a form of anti-supernaturalism in the left wing camp, in some fashion or another, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. In essence, it says the truly miraculous; particularly the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus simply do not fit with what modern science has taught and therefore we must find explanations for this material. The same would be true of predictive prophecy and the kind of self-consciousness attributed to Jesus which represents a strong messianic or least a form of messianic consciousness that allows Jesus’ link with deity. A second reason for the differences, involves the criteria used for assessing the authenticity or historicity of a given portion of the Gospel tradition. In the second quest for the historical Jesus, the criteria of double dis-similarity takes place, where material that was unique to that which was attributed to Jesus in the Gospel record, both visa-vie the conventional Judaism of his day and the Christianity that quickly emerged from his life and teachings, was held to be the core of what we could know about the historical Jesus. And in many instances a concomitant principal which does follow the standard cannons of historiography, namely, anything that did not pass criterion of double dis-similarity was therefore, rejected. This of course would make Jesus eccentric and have him not share any significant features with the Judaism of his day and also imply that none of his followers had significantly understood him, so that there were nothing but lines of substantial discontinuity between his life and teachings and the movement which grew from that.

As a result, Tom Wright and a trio of German scholars, V. Tyson, A. Merk, and D. Marventor have proposed what Wright calls the criterion of double dis-similarity and double similarity. One would expect an authentic datum from the Gospel record of Jesus to sit intelligibly in the environment of the first third of the first century in Palestine and one would also expect some surviving traits of its influence in the Christianity that emerged in the rest of the New Testament and in the early generations to follow. When such themes did simultaneously demonstrate significant points of discontinuity with both conventional Judaism and early Christianity, there was much more powerful and reliable indicator of the core of authentic tradition on historical grounds alone. Not surprisingly, initial considerations into the use of these criterions, Rice and Mywork have shown a much greater level of confidence toward the major contours of the Gospel picture.

A third reason for the differences is the question ones’ Biblical history. It is a legitimate claim of the left against the right, that in past eras, perhaps, even up to the middle of the 20th century; it was a common place among scholars to be more inherently open to the potential reliability of something inside the pages of the New Testament than in other documents of the same time period. However, in the intervening years in the interest of redressing this historical imbalance, it is arguable that the pendulum has swung dramatically in the opposite direction so that now, non-biblical history is often privileged in equally acceptable ways and the prejudice has swung against Biblical history.

These three differences then, arguably account for a significant portion of the distinctive between the right wing and left wing position of the spectrum, but what about the middle position? Keeping the historical Jesus research, simply separate from or compartmentalized from Christian faith, may appear to prove safer for religion. One’s belief does not swing with vagaries of historical scholarship, but it proves of little value in the larger arena or market place of scholarly ideas because it makes religious claims historically un-falsifiable and verifiable as well. It would also seem to create some kind of intellectual schizophrenia within any given person who may claim to believe, as a religious person, that when wearing their historian’s hat, they claim history has disproved at the very least, speaks strongly against or vice versa.

Another way to think of these three positions is similar to a long jumper in a track and field meet. The left end of the spectrum would be like someone who ran down the track to a point in the opposite direction, trying to jump and then perform some extraordinary contortion, twisting of their body, jumped into the air and tried to fling themselves as far back as possible in the opposite direction. One would not get very far. In other words, the historical evidence creates momentum in the opposite direction from faith, so that faith is believed in spite of or to use the expression, ‘an absurd leap of faith.’ The middle position would be comparable to what some children would like to do is situating themselves on a track, simply standing still at the line, stopping the long jumper from proceeding and then without any momentum in one direction or the other seeing how far one can jump. The right wing view would be that of what long jumpers in competition actually do, mainly running down the track. The historical evidence provides momentum in the direction of a fully confident religious faith in the text, but ultimately one does have to take that leap of faith, even though it is in the direction that the momentum of the evidence has been building.

III. A Probable Time Line of the Life of Christ

A second introductory topic that chapter ten in the textbook deals with, we can supplement with even briefer remarks here. The probable time line of the life of Christ is still illustrated in this PowerPoint slide. It comes as a shock to people that scholars routinely believe that Jesus was born no later than 4 BC. But, once one understands when and how the date we have today, that is ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ were divided. One must realize that this renumbering was done without the help of the very detailed chronological evidence Josephus’ many writings. Initial estimates were at least four years off, so what came to be entrenched as the date for ‘BC’, when calculated with the help of Josephus’ chronology, turned out to be the year Herod the Great died and if the Biblical account of Herod massacring the children in and around Bethlehem, up to two years of age, has any historical basis to it, then Jesus must have been born before 4 BC. Indeed, his birth may go back as far as 6 BC because of the overkill described, going after children up to the age of two and a potential solution to the question of Quirinius’ census described in the opening of Luke 2 may appear through this dating also. Although, there are no clear records of Quirinius being a governor or other form of political leader of Syria in BC days; there are reports of a census in what now we call AD 6. There is evidence from Egypt that Roman censuses occurred every fourteen years. If this was an empire wife pattern and if there was such an empire wide census in 6 AD, then that brings us back to about 8 BC for a previously such census.

Given the time it would have taken to send travelers throughout the entire Roman Empire to collect the data obtained from local counting of individuals after they, in turn had the opportunity to return to their home towns if they were no longer living in them, to be registered and then for all this data to be amassed and collated and recorded, distilled and even reported. It could very easily have taken up to two years if not longer. So whether we subtract two years from 4 BC or add it to 8 BC, 6 BC may be as best a guest to the date of Jesus’ birth.

According to the end of Luke 2, we know that Jesus was teaching in the Temple, at age twelve and there was no year zero to include, that brings us to AD 7. The issue of whether or not Jesus had a ‘two plus’ year ministry, or somewhere between two and three years or somewhere between three and four years hinges on a number of factors, not least whether an unnamed feast in John 5 in the opening verses is to be equated with a Passover or not. But also the question of how to calculate the reference to the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius in Luke chapter 3 and its opening verses as well. The most natural starting point for that period of fifteen years is AD 14, when Tiberius’ full reign as Emperor over the Roman Empire regime began. A straight forward addition of 14 + 15 would bring us to AD 29 and therefore, not leave enough room for even a 2 + year ministry prior to the crucifixion of Jesus which most scholars believe occurred in AD 30. It is possible, according to Harod Honger from Dallas Seminary, who argues for a date of AD 33. Thus AD 30 and AD 33 are the only two years near enough to this period of the reign of the reign of Pontus Pilate in AD 26 to 36 in which the Passover fell on a Friday, as we would call it today. But this then makes the time frame for the inclusion for all of the events, the Acts and the Epistles very crowded, but not impossible. And if one recalls that ancient chronological reckoning often was inclusive as well as exclusive (that is to say that partial years of rule, could be counted as full years). A fifteen year period of time could in fact span thirteen or fourteen years, which added onto AD 14, could bring us to a date of AD 27 or 28, each of which would allow for one of the possible scenarios of the length of Jesus’ ministry according to the Gospel of John.

Perhaps so, not to crowd any of the relevant periods of time too much, AD 28 may be the most probable date for the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry described in John 2 and AD 30 for the final Passover and time of his crucifixion and resurrection. That allows us to place the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry a year earlier and the period of Jesus in obscurity as a carpenter with his father and/or brothers in Nazareth during the intervening years between completion of his elementary school education at age twelve and then his bar mitzvah. These dates are the only basic ones that a student of the life of Christ should remember, but for reference, the outline on page 196 with possible additional dates discussed on page 193 creates a reasonable compromise between claiming too little and too much chronological knowledge of the life of Christ. And this reflects one possible division of Jesus’ ministry into stages correlating the synoptics and the Gospel of John. Also see page 195 in the textbook. The main importance of this exercise is to see how much or little time may have passed between events in the Gospels, particularly if large stretches may have been omitted by given Gospel writers. And where the Gospel writers seem to be thematically rather than chronologically arranging materials, we must take care not to read the cause and effect from one episode to the next unless there are unambiguous reasons for arguing that they do appear presented in a chronological sequence.

This requires us to return to the Greek text because many of the occurrences in English of Greek words translated now or then reflect such terms as a Greek ‘chi’ or ‘duh’ which often simply means ‘and’ or ‘but’ in English. Even the Greek ‘tota’ can, like the English, refer to a chronological next thing, but also to the logical consequence of some argument without chronological time being advanced. We are also able by these observations to recognize text that may be programmatically located by one Gospel writer because of their importance for that Gospel. Luke 4:31, for example, comes after the account of Jesus preaching in Nazareth and yet that text has been programmatically relocated; compare the parallels in Mark and Matthew to a later period in Christ’s ministry in order to form a kind of a headline over the major public ministry in the Gospel of Luke, namely that Jesus came to fulfill the role of the Spirit of the Lord as announced in Isaiah 61, verses 1 and following. Luke 4:14-15 even hint at this observation even without the parallel accounts where Luke summarizes Jesus’ return to Galilee and the Power of the Spirit spread throughout the whole countryside. He was teaching in the synagogues and everyone praised him. We then simply have an abrupt shift of him going up to Nazareth without any necessary chronological indicator that requires this to have happened later rather than earlier. Thus it would be a mistake, for example, to come to the next kerygapi after Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth in Luke 4:31, where once again, they are amazed at his teachings. This time his words in Capernaum had authority and he wondered why there was not similar hostility of that of Nazareth. If Luke’s point is to make a contrast between the responses and the two locations he has narrated prior to Luke 4:31 chronologically. It happens later at a more advanced stage of the ministry as hostility grows and thus there is no cause and effect, no lines to be drawn from Luke 4:16-30 and what comes later in Luke chapter 4. Many other similar examples could be drawn as well.