Is Historical Jesus Research Futile?

Is Historical Jesus Research Futile? April 21, 2013

Pat McCullough has a couple of posts on his blog in which he treats historical Jesus research as “futile.”

If one is of the view that all attempts at knowing about the past are so complicated by our inability to infallibly separate memory from invention, or to attain absolute certainty, then by all means dismiss not just historical Jesus research but most if not all attempts to know about the past.

But the reasoning that Pat uses is along different lines, and does not, I think, do justice to the situation.

The diverse conclusions drawn by researchers investigating the historical figure of Jesus is, at worst, an indication that historical methods do not successfully counter our penchant for making Jesus as we desire him to be. Diverse Jesuses (or Jesi, as Kate Dailey-Bailey prefers) are to be found as far back as we have literature about Jesus. And we could say the same about Socrates.

But even our earliest portraits are not infinitely diverse. There are commonalities which indicate that there were constraints of memory and tradition at work, which counterbalanced to at least some extent the penchant to invent, to make a figure a spokesperson for one’s own ideas.

There is another possible reason for the diversity of portraits of the historical Jesus offered by academics. One pole of the scholarly enterprise is to come up with something new, and thus worthy of publication.

Given the degree of interest, professional as well as popular, in the figure of Jesus, the sheer number of scholars working on historical questions related to him are not only bound to, but required to by their doctoral supervisors and later their employers, to come up with new things.

But those who work in academia know that not every new proposal is worth accepting. And so when some people (whether conservative or liberal believers, or mythicists, or anyone else) latch onto a marginal scholarly viewpoint because it fits their worldview, that is a problem not with historical investigation, but with the fact that many people outside of the academy misunderstand the scholarly enterprise as one in which either everyone should all say the same thing, or otherwise nothing is certain, and one can just pick and choose from among the scholars whichever view confirms one’s own assumptions).

That is why grasping the notion of scholarly consensus is crucial. When there is extensive agreement among experts in a field, despite our need to innovate, then it is likely that that consensus is based on substantial and convincing evidence. When there is widespread disagreement not only in the latest monographs seeking to innovate, but in textbooks and other places where one would expect to see a consensus viewpoint articulated, that probably indicates that the evidence does not clearly point to one particular conclusion.

We can see that in the case of plenty of historical figures. What they said may be known with a high degree of certainty, but even then, what they meant, what they intended, is regularly construed in more than one way.

Scholarship involves connecting the dots between pieces of evidence, and often this can be done in more than one way. The fact that one can configure things that Jesus almost certainly said in different arrangements and thus different overall portraits does not mean that there are not things that he almost certainly said.

And so, from my own perspective as someone who works in the field of historical Jesus research, I have to say that it does not seem at all futile to me. Indeed, the application of historical methods is one of the only things that has shown itself to be able, to at least some extent, to counteract the penchant for simply inventing a Jesus of one’s own imagining. The evidence does not constrain human imagination to such an extent that it is impossible to come up with different interpretations. But without historical constraints, the human imagination would simply be free to invent without any voices to protest, and without any basis for doing so.

What does sometimes seem futile – but I continue to hope and believe is not – is the attempt to communicate to the wider public how historical scholarship works, and how to make sense of the things they read and hear from the academy.

If I thought that was futile, after all, then I wouldn’t have bothered writing this post.

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  • paulos777

    As futile as speculation may appear, we do have immediate apprehension, or divine revelation. To surrender to Christ, as CS Lewis did after an agonizing night of struggling past pride to admit his sin, is to invite a washing and renewing of the soul from its primal hurts into glorious joys – a surprise indeed.

    One must also caution about academic approaches to what is, was and will be, since the rule in universities is publish or perish. To refute an old idea is simply coin to gain audience share. As base as this seems, one must recall that it is not to many wise nor to many rich but to the least that God is manifested. To come down from one’s tower of words, which obfuscate simple truths, is to be one with the humble Son of God. He is with us even now.

    • Nick Gotts

      Odd that different people seem to receive such different “immediate apprehension[s] of divine revelation”.

  • Jake

    Dr. McGrath, saw David Fitzgerald at an atheist fest at an Atheist “Reasonfest” rally in Lawrence Ks.

    What do you think of his work?

  • thesauros

    Absolutely agree with Paul H. Those for whom the evidence is meant to reveal Christ will recognize the truth before them. For the rest, well, there is simply nothing you can do for them. They’ll see lies and fraud and conspiracy no matter the evidence.

  • Thanks, James! Those posts weren’t really meant to explore the issue comprehensively. I have a more fully developed response up on the blog now:

  • redpill99

    Hi! do you know that Richard Carrier, Price, Doherty, Archaya et al, has written a rebuttal to Ehrman Jesus?

    Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus. almost all his popular books are focused on Christianity. he has a phd in ancient history from Colombia with focus on Rome and Greece. Price is a New Testament scholar like yourself.

    • The fact that you cite someone who has chosen not to work as a historian, an educator at an unaccredited school, and two people who have no clear relevant qualifications, and treat that as though their reaction to Ehrman were of obvious significance, makes me wonder what you thought the point of your comment was. I am guessing that you have not read this blog much, since I’ve dealt with the claims of many of the individuals you mention in detail.

  • Nick Gotts

    Thanks for recommending E.P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus, which I read with interest. I remain rather sceptical that we can actually deduce as much from the available sources as he thinks we can (although he does stress that much of what he deduces is not certain). I think he greatly underestimates the potential of one of the sources of unreliability in those sources – retrodiction – and unless I missed it, completely overlooks another – the possibility (even likelihood) that anecdotes and aphorisms originally told of other people, got attributed to Jesus – as they do today to such as Churchill and Einstein. To give an example with regard to retrodiction, Sanders appears certain that Jesus believed himself to have the authority to speak for God; and indeed attributes his execution in part to his perceived arrogance in this regard. But we know that both Paul and the Evangelists believed this of Jesus, and it appears psychologically and sociologically quite possible that they arrived at this belief after his death: we know that in the early history of religions, and in the aftermath of eschatological disappointments, beliefs can change rapidly and radically; and this must be even more the case when the central figure left no writings at all.

    • Nick Gotts

      Clarification: of course, Paul must have arrived at this belief after Jesus’s death! read “the early Christians” for “Paul and the Evangelists”.

  • Dominick Garden

    Sometime we just seem fixated on the wrong question. Jesus Christ was and is the personification of the Logos, the divine reason. This is the point. This is what he has always been. A more useful direction of inquiry is to ask how we know what is wrong and speculate on the etymology of the name, Jesus Christ. Christ means Messiah, the external figure that will bring peace to all people.

    However, during the 1st Century, Judaea was riven with conflict; much of the unrest being inspired by Judas the Galilean, an anarchist. It is in the nature of anarchy to reject external authority and rely on the individual conscience to determine what is right and what is wrong. Early Christians were anarchists,who looked for Christ within themselves.

    Anarchy, however, does not persist because human nature is unreliable. A second way of determining what is wrong is to rely on laws. During the 1st century there was much promotion of Jewish Law to counteract the chaos prevalent in Judaea. You can see this within the Dead Sea scrolls.

    Joshua (Yeshu), the second-in-command to Moses was born from a Gentile lineage and accompanied Moses part of the way up Mount Sinaii as he received the 10 commandments.

    So Yeshu Messiah (Jesus Christ) is a construction of a personified Logos, representing individual conscience and social laws..

    Read the epistle of James. He writes about the Word (Logos) being within us and he writes about the Law and he makes no reference whatsoever to an historical Jesus Christ.

    • Patrick

      James 1:1 “James, a servant of God and The Lord Jesus Christ”.