The Historical Jesus and the Historicity of the Christian Scriptures
Much ink has been expended in the effort to uncover the historical Jesus. The questions abound. Was Jesus a radical revolutionary against the oppressive Roman Empire or was he a pacifist who decried the use of force? Was Jesus an imposter or was he a messenger from on high? Was he a prophet or was he a deluded dreamer? What theology did Jesus preach? Did he preach a Trinity or did he advocate a pure monotheistic faith?
All of these arguments center on the work of literature that is known as the Christian Scripture. It is in this set of books that the character and the history of Jesus are depicted. This series of books brings a new set of questions to the discussion. Who authored these books? When were these books authored? Was there another document that preceded these books from which these writers drew their narratives? Are these books reliable?
It is not for me to attempt to resolve these questions. I do not believe that these questions can be resolved decisively and conclusively. The events in questions took place in the distant past. Any theory, no matter how convincing, can only remain speculation.
What we can do and what is incumbent upon us to do is to put this discussion into perspective. In the complexities of the conversations certain common denominators tend to get lost. By recognizing the common thread that is present in all of the theories about Jesus and the books that describe his life we can bring some balance to this debate.
Any discussion about a human being must recognize its limitations. No man can truly know what transpires in the heart of his fellow man. Only God can see the heart (1Samuel 16:7). What we can judge are the words and the activities that our subject brought out into the open. Since this discussion is about a man who lived and died a long time ago, we cannot evaluate all of his words and actions. We can only measure those words and those actions that were preserved in the writings and in the hearts of those who were impacted by his life. In other words this can never be a discussion about Jesus. We can only discuss the impression that Jesus left behind him in this world.
These impressions themselves are ever-changing. New interpretations of Jesus’ words and teachings are being developed on a regular basis. Is it at all possible to determine with any accuracy the content of the original impression that Jesus left behind him? I think that not. But I do believe that we can be confident about one element of the original impression that Jesus made on those who lived with him. There is one constant quality that every strand of evidence affirms concerning the impression that Jesus left behind him. There is no dispute that Jesus raised up a following that saw love for Jesus as a central feature, if not the central feature of their universe.
Since that time, all who considered themselves followers of Jesus accepted this constant. All who follow Jesus accept that a person’s love for Jesus or lack thereof is the most important defining quality of man. These followers of Jesus defined themselves and they evaluated their connection to other people primarily on the basis of their feelings toward Jesus.
Yes, there was and there still is conflict about which Jesus to love. Is it a Trinitarian Jesus or is it a Unitarian Jesus? Is it a pacifist Jesus or is it a Jesus who wants to see his enemies destroyed? But all who like to see themselves as extensions of Jesus’ impact on human society agree that love for Jesus is a central feature of their worldview.
The books of the Christian Scriptures were products of this community. It is difficult to determine with any certainty the precise theological parameters of the writers of the gospels, but there is no question that they saw love for Jesus as a principal element of existence. The most important line in the universe of the gospel writers was the divide between those who love Jesus and those who don’t.
It is naïve to read the books of Christian Scripture without recognizing this truth. These writers loved Jesus in an extreme way. It is clear that these people would not have demanded the same standard of evidence that an objective outsider would demand before accepting something positive or before discounting something negative about their hero.
To say that the books of Christian Scriptures are historical documents is misleading. Yes, these books were written a long time ago. But do these books present objective historical facts? It would be foolish to believe so. It is clear that these books are presenting the worldview of people whose hearts were completely committed to Jesus. Not only were these books written by people with a deep love for Jesus in their hearts, but these books were written with the express purpose of promoting and justifying that love. Few factors can distort a person’s view of reality to the same extent as the factor of love for an individual.
The ramifications of this truth are manifold. When the Christian Scriptures report that Jesus performed many glorious miracles, we need to read those words with the understanding that those who wrote them had a deep motivation to believe those reports. When these writers present fanciful Scriptural interpretations that exalt Jesus we need to recognize that there was a driving force in their hearts that wanted to see these interpretations in the words of the prophets. When the gospel writers vilify those who did not share their love for Jesus, we need to realize that the centerpiece of their worldview would have them reinterpret reality in this way.
We can know very little about Jesus today, so many centuries after his death. But we can be sure that he left behind him a legacy that elevated people’s love for him to an extreme degree.
The question that needs to be asked when reading the Christian Scriptures is if this love is justified. What legacy of justification did they leave for this central element of their message? Perhaps more important is the question of what kind of legacy of respect did they pass on concerning the ethical and moral responsibility for people to question that love.
Did the community that Jesus raised respect the process of honest questioning before loving? Or did they redefine honesty according to the love that was so central to their universe?
These are the questions that we should be asking about the historical Jesus. For this is the imprint that he left on the minds and hearts of men.