March 19, 2015

Thought for the Day: Historical Jesus

While it is possible to express truth through fictional means -- the parables may be a good example -- I don't think one can separate history from a minimal factual basis. That's not to say that historians don't differ both in their interpretations and in the facts they present, but there needs to be some basis to the historical narrative or it isn't historical.

If it could be shown that Jesus never existed, I don't think there would be much point in the Christian faith as Christian. There are some wonderful notions enshrined in it, some excellent teachings, but most of them can be found out through reason and humanistic ethical thought, or in any number of other religious traditions. As someone once said, Christianity is not just assent to a set of propositions, but Yes to a person -- and if that person never existed, as Paul observed, we Christians are of all people the most to be pitied.

I take great comfort in the knowledge that proving a negative is nigh on to impossible, and will accept the scant documentary evidence that those feet, in ancient times, walked the Middle East, even if they never made it to England's pleasant hills.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Counterlight said...

I wonder if anyone ever doubted the existence of Socrates. It seems to me that there is even less ironclad evidence that he ever existed apart from Plato's dialogues.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

And therein lies the difference: Socrates is important primarily on account of the substance of his teaching; Jesus, for Christians, is important for his teaching, but also for his life, death, and resurrection.

DeaconScott said...

Socrates thought, therefore he was. I guess.

Wilfried said...

How do you feel about projects that attempt to separate the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith"? I think it may be an interesting intellectual exercise, but ultimately futile.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

DeaconScott, I'd say that Plato thought about Socrates, and since the thinker and the object of thought need to exist (at least the latter in the mind) then "Socrates" existed... or the idea of Socrates at least! :-)

Wilfried, I tend to follow the lead of the venerable Schweitzer in thinking that the quest for the historical Jesus, while interesting, is too lacking in data to be entirely fruitful.

That doesn't mean I don't think the historical Jesus existed -- the claims of some notwithstanding -- but that both precision and accuracy are limited. I think Meier's Marginal Jew volumes are about the best work in that area.

That leaves us with the Christ of faith, who, as I suggest above, cannot exist if the Jesus of history didn't -- since that's what the Incarnation means. If Jesus is imaginary, so is Christ, and that isn't what Christianity holds to be true. So, yes, I think the effort at separating Jesus from Christ is both futile from a practical historical standpoint and misguided from a Christian theological standpoint.

That's not to say it isn't an interesting intellectual exercise, and a good many have dabbled in it! But I get more than exercised by those who speak with great confidence about things that are rather more speculative than not, much of it based on question-begging premises that, for example, automatically dismiss the supernatural as impossible, or adopt what amounts to a form of modern docetism in which Jesus is simply a confection or projection built out of thin air. I don't find either approach to be particularly rigorous from a historian's standpoint.