Who Was Jesus of Nazareth?

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Reading and hearing the Passion of Christ this past Lent, I have been even more strongly impressed than in previous years by the historical objectivity and specificity of the four Gospel accounts of the events they relate. Competent narrative historians understand, as good novelists do, the importance of minute but telling factual detail to an effective and credible story. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, though literary amateurs, shared this understanding. Some of the facts related by each of the Gospel writers agree with those mentioned by all four of them, while other facts are included in only several accounts, and others still are mentioned just once. Nonetheless all four Passion narratives share the immediacy, the solid objectivity, and the coherency that are important characteristics of serious historical writing. To these one must add a keen apprehension of the personalities involved in the drama—their thoughts, speech, responses, gestures, and appearance—and of the drama itself.

Still, the search for the so-called “historical Jesus” persists, His historicity having been established pretty much to the satisfaction even of the skeptics. The business has a fantastical quality: it is as if after Columbus’s voyage there remained eager would-be adventurers who doubted that the New World had been discovered and were building boats in Spain, Portugal, and Genoa in which to sail westward to ascertain the truth. Or—to choose another metaphor—as if a far-sighted man were to waste his days trying to read a lengthy and difficult book, having forgotten the expensive pair of eyeglasses he was wearing pushed high on his forehead.

Those who believe that there must be a discoverable Jesus of history, separate and distinct from the Jesus of the Gospels, deny the counter-claim of His a-historicity and accept that the historical personage called Jesus Christ existed. Beyond that, they assume that the investigative techniques available to modern scholars offer a good or better than even chance of learning who and what He “really” was—provided that the investigators involved in the quest are “open-minded” and unbiased researchers. They ignore the fact that there are only three kinds of students of religious history—or any other sort of history, and probably any subject whatsoever. These are the believers, the disbelievers, and the neutralists (we call them skeptics or agnostics).

It is reasonable to think that on so essential a matter as religion human neutrality is a psychological impossibility, as it is equally reasonable to believe that no human being is really asexual. In fact, experience and evidence abound to support the conclusion that no writer, no thinker—in fact, no person alive—is wholly free of bias on any subject of importance, or even of no importance at all. Persons in search of the historical Jesus err solely in supposing that only those who believe that He was who He claimed to be and worship Him as such are incapable of intellectual honesty, and that consequently whatever they have said and written for two thousand years about Him is suspect from the outset. Their rule of thumb is that Christians should never be allowed the benefit of the doubt on the matter, in short, that they should be presumed to be liars until they have proven themselves to be otherwise.

 

Scholars and others laboring in the vineyard of Historical Jesus Studies will be satisfied, one way or another, only when they think they have discovered incontrovertible historical proof that Christ was not who He said He was—that He was not the Divine Son of the Living God. Since they are engaged in the practice of historical research and deduction, they must be assumed to be looking for the kind of evidence that professional historians look to uncover and interpret: spoken and written testimony by eye-witnesses; accounts at secondhand and reliable contemporary hearsay; documents, including official reports, memoranda, and letters; historical accounts by contemporaries; the results of archival research by later historians belonging to subsequent historical periods; artifacts exhumed by archaeological investigations; and so forth.

In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, we begin with four separate accounts written by four men whom we believe to have been His disciples, having accompanied Him for three years and witnessed His arrest, trial, and execution, and having seen Him risen from the dead, and ascending into Heaven. These accounts, as I say, are scrupulously detailed though not documented, and they amplify rather than contradict each other. They are obviously the work of literate and highly intelligent men, owing to hitherto undemonstrated native talent or else to divine inspiration. Save for one thing—the supernatural element that is inseparable from the beginning of the story to its finish—the Gospels would have been accepted as histories, good or bad, shortly after they began to circulate among the public. Were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the Gospels According to Thomas Jefferson, few people over the last two millennia would have tried to discredit them, or had reason to believe.

Materialists, for whom history is a series of natural events unfolding within the world of time and space, naturally resist the intrusion of the supernatural world upon it. Were they open to doing so, they would recognize the impossibility of searching for natural explanations in supernatural events. It is this supernatural breakthrough that chiefly offends the non-Christian mind. Mohammed claimed to be a messenger of God and God’s Prophet. He did not, however, claim to be divine himself. Consequently, no search has been made by Kafiri writers for the “historical Mohammed,” though no secularist believes that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mohammed in his cave and ordered him, “Recite!” For him, Islam is another elaborate system of superstitious belief cherished by ignorant and gullible people, but it is only that. Only two decades after the attacks of September 2001, he does not view it as a dangerous and threatening religion—unlike Christianity, its sinister rival—and self-righteously rebukes anyone who does.

For all the apparent intellectual seriousness and effort the participants in Historical Jesus Studies have devoted to their work, their variously-minded practitioners so far agree on nothing, or at least on very little. One might argue that this lack of success paradoxically supports their skepticism, since, if the Christ of the Gospel accounts is the true one, He should have been far more widely known and accepted in the Eastern Mediterranean world than He was in His lifetime. Yet His relative obscurity is entirely plausible when one considers the relative geographical remoteness and the intellectual and cultural detachment of ancient Palestine, so far removed from the Greco-Roman civilization of the period despite the Roman occupation.

Who, outside of Palestine, should have taken notice of, or interest in, the leader of a tiny Jewish sect before He got Himself crucified and resurrected and ascended at last into Heaven, leaving His disciples and apostles to spread His teachings and the story of His life among the Jews and the Gentiles, and within a few years convert some of the former and thousands (or tens of thousands) of the latter to the new religion of Christianity—a thing that happened with what seems almost supernatural speed? Sherlock Holmes’s operative maxim was that once the range of possible explanations has been exhausted, the impossible answer must be the right one. So it is with Jesus Christ: if He was not who He claimed to be, He never existed at all.

Scientists have always been prepared to accept conditionally conclusions that have been demonstrated only partially, pending further discoveries. And the lay public is inclined to receive their findings uncritically, since these have been “scientifically” reached by “experts” in whom they have the modern materialist’s faith—although many of the theories proposed by 21st-century physicists push the limits of human credulity far further than the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church do. (One wonders at what point—if any—the boundaries of the natural world merge with those of the supernatural.)

Scientists, moreover, when they develop an impossible-seeming theory that they nevertheless feel instinctively to be true, are willing to proceed on the assumption that it is true, until shown to be false. Stories appear all the time in the news to report new observations of natural phenomena such as black holes swallowing black dwarf stars that seem to confirm theories formulated by Einstein a century ago. The Historical Jesus people work conversely: they reject the best historical evidence for the truth of a conclusion while trying to prove the conclusion itself false! They’ve been at this game since the middle of the seventeenth century without getting much of anywhere, and they’re not giving up yet.

Image: Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea by James Tissot

Chilton Williamson, Jr.

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Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column "Prejudices" appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at chiltonwilliamson.com.

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