Historical Criticism and the Christ of Faith

Before there was Bart Ehrman, there was John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar. My younger readers may not even have heard of the name John Dominic Crossan; but let me assure you, back in the early 90s his The Historical Jesus was quite the bestseller, and he maintained a strong presence throughout the 90s, continuing into the early years of the 21st century. I have not heard much about him recently, but perhaps that is only because I’ve been out of touch with New Testament scholarship for the past decade or so. As I recall, he and N. T. Wright engaged in several public debates back then. Here is one on the resurrection of Jesus that is particularly interesting:

I am not a biblical scholar. I came close to flunking my Greek class in seminary, and Hebrew is all Hebrew to me. But I’ve long been interested in the Jesus debate. As EO readers may have already guessed (“So what if Jesus didn’t claim to be God“), I am personally skeptical of skeptical reconstructions of Jesus. The more different “Jesus” looks from the one we find in the canonical gospels, the more skeptical I become. I trust scholars like N. T. Wright, E. P. Sanders, John Meier, Raymond Brown, Günther Bornkamm, Reginald Fuller, Richard Bauckham, and Ben Witherington a lot more than I trust scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Bart Ehrman. When a scholar can seriously claim that Jesus’ body was buried in a common burial ground and was eaten by dogs–on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever–then one knows one is simply dealing with fantasy. All controls upon the use of the evidence have been abandoned. Now we are free to fabricate a Jesus who conforms to our own ideological programs.

Why is it that rational, intelligent people are able to construct so many different and contradictory renderings of this Jesus of Nazareth? Since everyone is basically dealing with the same data, we have to conclude that the problem is methodology. What methodology should control Christian reflection? How should Christian historians approach the historical evidence?

The Christian historian necessarily approaches the task of rendering a portrait of the historical Jesus differently than the secular historian. First because the Christian approaches the historical data from the perspective of a theistic worldview and therefore is open to historical possibilities to which the nontheist cannot be open. And second because Jesus is not, for the Christian, just a person of the past but a living person who is known and worshipped within the community of faith. The Christian knows that he has been addressed in the gospel by the living Lord who has conquered death. He experiences the Lord’s presence in manifold and varied ways in worship, prayer, and service. It is this risen Christ, now enthroned in the power and glory of God, who leads, guides, and inspires the Church. It is this Jesus who ultimately identifies himself to the Church through his Holy Scriptures.

The Christian thus properly begins his historical work believing that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, risen from the dead. This is a truth that has, by its intrinsic intelligibility, truth, authority and heuristic power, imposed itself upon the heart and consciousness of the community of Christians down the ages. Belief in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ is rightly described as an “ultimate belief.” It cannot be proven on the basis of historical reasoning alone. It must be accepted and believed on its own ground. It is the foundational miracle of the gospel and interprets all other beliefs of the catholic faith. Thomas F. Torrance explains further:

It is essentially in this way that the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ came to be accepted by the early Church and classical Christian theology: they forced themselves upon the minds of Christians from their own empirical and theoretical ground in sharp antithesis to what they had believed about God and in genuine conflict with the framework of secular thought or the world view of their age. That God himself had become man was an offence to the Jew and folly to the Greek; that Jesus Christ rose from the dead was deemed to be utterly incredible. Yet the incarnation and resurrection forced themselves upon the mind of the Church against the grain of people’s convictions, as ultimate events bearing their own intrinsic but shattering claims in the self-evidencing reality and transcendent rationality of God himself, and they took root within the Church only through a seismic restructuring of religious and intellectual belief. In the life of Jesus Christ an objective self-disclosure of God in Word and Act had taken place within the structure of the world which was discerned to be of a final and decisive nature, commanding commitment in the response of faith, in which Jesus Christ himself constituted the central point of focus in an exclusive relation with God the Father. (Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 17-18)

Ultimate beliefs are rightly subjected to rigorous self-criticism to ensure that the events to which they witness do indeed bear compelling power and conviction. It is proper for the Christian to ask whether the resurrection happened and to seek and evaluate evidences. It is proper for the Christian to examine the historical testimonies to Jesus to see if the apostolic and creedal claim of incarnation is convincing. Yet ultimately the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus must be accepted in their own self-evidential power; they must be accepted on the grounds that they themselves posit in the preaching and worship of the Church.

By the historical nature of the claims of the gospel, Christian belief is vulnerable to historical disconfirmation. If scholarship should demonstrate that Jesus never lived or if archeologists could produce his bones, the gospel would be decisively disproven. If secular biblical criticism should prove that Jesus was dramatically and irreconcilably different from the Jesus rendered in the canonical gospels, then faith would become impossible. But Christian belief is not grounded on the fragile reconstructions of historians–and never has been. The gospel is the proclamation that Jesus has been raised from death for our salvation. To believe this message is to know that Jesus is risen, for only he can speak to us the promises of the gospel. Christians place their faith in the living Christ, who gives himself to his disciples in Word and Sacrament. “We cannot reach Christ through historical reconstruction,” declares Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. “It may be helpful, but it is not sufficient and, on its own, becomes mere necrophilia. We encounter him as a living Person only in the foretaste of his presence which is called ‘Church'” (Feast of Faith, p. 28) Ratzinger is not suggesting that historical research is irrelevant. He is not promoting a gnostic Christ disconnected to the Jesus of history. But he is reminding us that Christians need not look to the ever-changing opinions of historians for permission to believe the claims of the gospel.

(Go to “Faithful Biblical Criticism”)

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3 Responses to Historical Criticism and the Christ of Faith

  1. Pingback: THURSDAY BYZANTINE EDITION | BigPulpit.com

  2. jrj1701 says:

    To my feeble mind belief in Jesus Christ is primarily faith based and that historical study of the man Jesus always has problems and more indicative of what that individual, at that specific time thinks while trying to reduce Jesus Christ to the level of a finite understanding. This finite understanding of man is limited and repetitive, man in his pride using language of the day thinking that he has come up with some thing new, when in reality there is nothing new under the sun. A Christian should be aware of the history so that it can be seen that the secular world does nothing but try to reinvent the wheel.


  3. infanttheology says:

    Father Kimel,

    Interesting post. Always enjoy reading your thoughts.

    “We cannot reach Christ through historical reconstruction,” declares Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. “It may be helpful, but it is not sufficient and, on its own, becomes mere necrophilia. We encounter him as a living Person only in the foretaste of his presence which is called ‘Church’” (Feast of Faith, p. 28)

    There would be some overlap with what Lutherans think here, it seems. Knowledge of history does not save – we do not necessarily “reach Christ” through such knowledge. From Augsburg Confession XX:

    “23] Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.

    24] Now he that knows that he has a Father gracious to him through Christ, truly knows God; he knows also that God cares for him, and calls upon God; in a word, he is not 25] without God, as the heathen. For devils and the ungodly are not able to believe this article: the forgiveness of sins. Hence, they hate God as an enemy, call not upon Him, 26] and expect no good from Him. Augustine also admonishes his readers concerning the word “faith,” and teaches that the term “faith” is accepted in the Scriptures not for knowledge such as is in the ungodly but for confidence which consoles and encourages the terrified mind.”

    In other words, the Nicene Creed may be believed to be true, doctrinally, historically, etc – but a key question here is do you believe it is *for you* – *in the sense* that we are talking about Christ’s forgiveness, life and salvation *for you*.



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