Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Historical Jesus Spectrum

I've read a few books and listened to a number of debates and discussions on 'the historical Jesus' over the past few years. The debates are always frustrating. This morning I realised just why they are largely a waste of time. The problem is this, the two opposing viewpoints generally presented in these debates are too far apart on the spectrum of belief for anyone to ever have their point of view changed by them.

As I see it, the spectrum of belief in the historical Jesus and the gospel stories goes something like this:
  1. The bible is completely accurate and therefore Jesus was and is the divine Son of God.
  2. The bible stories are mostly accurate, although some minor mistakes and embellishments have got in there, due to the human writers, but all the essential stuff is true, therefore we can be sure Jesus was and is the divine Son of God.
  3. The bible stories are based on what happened in history, but some legendary and mythical content has been added along the way. Jesus was and is the divine Son of God, and we can still learn all we need to know about him for salvation and righteous living from the gospel stories.
  4. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, a holy man or prophet, sent by God, and we can learn how to live and how to approach God by following his teachings.
  5. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, he was a good man who believed he was sent by God. He may even have believed he was in some way divine. Obviously some of the stories in the gospels are outright fictions and he couldn't have done all those miracles, but we can still learn something about right living from his good moral teaching.
  6. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, he was a charismatic political leader who lead a movement against Rome and was executed as a consequence.
  7. The bible stories are a collection of mythical stories and wise teachings which have been fictively attributed to Jesus, who was a real man in 1st century Galilee/Judea. But the legends almost completely obstruct our view of the real Jesus, so we don't really know who he was.
  8. The bible stories, including tales of Jesus the saviour, are a collection of mythical stories. At some point these were historicised, but the character of Jesus was never a real person.
The problem with debates between Christian scholars and atheist scholars is that Christians, by definition, must hold to one of the first three options on this list, while atheists, by definition, must discount the top four options. Generally debates are between someone holding to Option 1 or 2 and someone holding to Option 5 or 6. But these viewpoints are sufficiently far apart on the spectrum that there is almost no common ground between them. The only really meaningful debates on the topic of the historical Jesus are between those holding to options 4, 5 or 6. That is, it is only people who agree to a high amount of embellishment that can reasonably debate these points, Christians are pretty much excluded from meaningful debate on this topic, and thus the conclusion that Jesus was actually divine in some way is pretty much off the table.

The thing is, I really don't care which option out of 5 to 8 is true, or which option out of 1 to 3 is true. But I really do care whether the truth lies in options 1 to 3 or in options 5 to 8. Option 4, being a very uncertain place, when it comes to Jesus, is not something I want to conclude, because where would that get me? Yes there is a God, but no Jesus wasn't his Son. Yikes. I'll leave that possibility alone for now.

For me, the only thing that matters about the 'historical' Jesus is this: Was he the Son of God or not?

If he wasn't the Son of God, it doesn't matter to me if he existed or didn't. It doesn't matter to me if he was a political leader, an apocalyptic prophet or a freedom fighter. It doesn't matter to me whether or not he believed he was the Son of God or not. If he wasn't actually the real Son of the real God, then I really don't care who he was.

But if he was the real Son of the real God, then this fact should influence everything in my life.

So my problem with all the debates, discussions and books on the Historical Jesus is this - none of them helps me decide whether or not the gospel stories contain the truth.

But I am persuaded that there are errors and human embellishment in the gospels, so Option 1 is off the table for me. So the battle ground is really on Options 2 and 3. If it can be shown that the embellishments and fictions in the gospel stories are in the minority, then the possibility that Jesus was and is the Son of God is still a live option.

I've read, seen and heard plenty of stuff that suggests that the majority of material in there is legendary. But its only a suggestion, not a 'beyond reasonable doubt' proof.

Then again, I've not heard any particularly compelling case for the authenticity of the apparently legendary material in the gospels, so the balance of evidence seems to be supporting the skeptical side. But its just not conclusive for me.

And that bugs me.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Thank you for being honest about this; most Christians I know pretend there aren't issues here. Whistling as they walk past the graveyard?


Danny said...

I see myself as a 6 with a dash of 7. As an agnostic I am unpersuaded by 1-3 since I have no emotional baggage to cling on to Christian theology. 4 seems like the position of Bishop Spong and other progressive Christians. Some of the extreme progressives lean to 5 but always gives an out to the 4th position. 8 seems to radical and best left to radical internet mythicists.

Steve Finnell said...


Where should Christians look for God's authoritative truth? Should it be the Bible? Should it be the church of your choice or the church you belong to by chance?

The Bible was completed in 95 A.D. when the apostle John wrote Revelation. Who wrote the Bible? Was it God or was it the church?

John 14:24-26 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent me. (THE WORDS JESUS SPOKE WERE FROM GOD THE FATHER) 25 "These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all the I said to you.

The words of Jesus were from God the Father and He said that The Father would send the apostles the Holy Spirit so they could remember all that He said. The words of the apostles were God's word, their words were Scripture, their words were the Bible.

In, John 14:24-26, Jesus was not talking to the Pope, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Billy Graham, Joesph Smith Jr, Mary Baker Eddy, cardinals, bishops, elders, so-called modern day apostles, preachers, pastors, nor any one claiming to speak for God. If the church or theses men as individuals, were speaking for God by new revelation, then, we would have added books to the Bible. There would the books of the Popes, the book of John Calvin, the book of Billy Graham, the books of elders, the books of churches, the book of Joesph Smith Jr. etc.


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Joshua Paul Smith said...

Excellent post, and some pretty insightful nuance in your characterization of the spectrum of Historical Jesus studies.

I would probably characterize myself as a 3 with splashes of 4. And I agree—it is an uncomfortable place to be. It seems to me, though, that both ends of the spectrum lean too much on certainty, which is a product of the Modern era and has very little to do with reality, which tends to be messy.

I'm not sure my faith rests on whether or not Jesus really was the Son of God, though. For one thing, there is no clear consensus on what that title entails. A better question might be whether or not I consider Jesus "Lord."

For another thing, I'm pretty convinced that even if we were to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was NOT the Son of God and was NOT raised from the dead, I would still follow the moralistic teachings of the NT because they offer—in my view—the best way to live peacefully with other human beings.

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm not sure I've been accused of 'insight' before, so that's particularly appreciated.


Maybe focussing on the 'Son of God' phrase wasn't the best emphasis. The phrase does mean different things to different people. What I mean is, it matters to me if Jesus was and is a divine being who existed before his incarnation and continues to exist now in some manner that he can hear our prayers and act in our world today. In other words, is Jesus God or a god?


I think you need to ask yourself who compiled the NT and why? I was very surprised to discover that the NT canon we have now appears to have been compiled by 'orthodox' Christians as a response to the earlier 'heretical' Marcionite canon.

Thus the canon was created with an agenda and a bias. Textual criticism of the NT documents shows that there are many instances of 'redaction' where material has been added to the bible. The church already had added to scripture before the books were even compiled into a canon!

So how can a book which has been edited by humans to fit their agenda have the authority of God?