Faith in the historical Jesus

(Photo: Unsplash/Gerhard Reus)

One of the great joys of 2022 has been The Rest is History podcast with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. I don't think I have missed any of its 288 episodes! It is informative, entertaining, accurate, stimulating, challenging and never dull. It is also remarkably balanced and fair in its treatment of Christianity. Nonetheless I was a little apprehensive when I heard that they were doing a double edition on the historical Jesus.

I need not have feared. As usual it was interesting, informative and fair. There was much I could agree with but there were some things that were a little more challenging.

Tom and Dominic demonstrate the historicity of Jesus and offer some insightful and helpful historical background details. For example, no credible historian thinks that Jesus is a myth. They also acknowledge the enormous impact of Christ on human history. It is interesting to note that the name of Jesus is used every minute of every hour of every day on this planet!

Dominic expresses surprise that Jesus was not mentioned in historical documents until around 100 years after his death – and states that this would be equivalent to David Lloyd-George, or Woodrow Wilson or the Kaiser not being mentioned until 100 years after they lived. Except it wouldn't, for two reasons. Firstly, there was no printing press or radio or modern transportation in Jesus's day. Secondly and most importantly Jesus was not rich, famous, or a political leader. So why would anyone write about him?

A few years ago, a professor from Jerusalem challenged me in a public meeting about a quote I had used from Josephus. He told me that he thought part of it was accurate, but the rest wasn't. I accepted what he said, but he then went on to say that we should not be looking for references to Jesus in 1st Century documents anyway. Why? Because Jesus was a Palestinian peasant. He would no more be in the Roman news than the death of my father would be headline news on the BBC! Indeed, if we did have a lot of alleged official references to Jesus in the 1st century that would be highly suspect!

Tom was adamant that the Christmas narrative as recorded in Matthew and Luke did not happen and he gave several objections, the most serious of which is the problem of the census in Luke 2. This was supposed to have taken place when Herod was king of Judea and Quirinius governor of Syria. The problem is that Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius did not become governor until 6 AD. But this is not an insurmountable problem.

What do we mean by an insurmountable problem? An insurmountable problem would be if Luke had recorded that Jesus was born in Egypt in 6 BC while Matthew claimed he was born in Jerusalem in AD 7. There is no way that these could be reconciled.

There are, however, possibilities for the census problem. For example, the translation could be that the census took place 'before' Quirinius was governor. We also know that Quirinius was Consul in Syria from 12 BC, although he did not become Legate until AD 6.

Tom also stated that Jesus was born in Nazareth because the idea that Joseph would have gone from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census was nonsensical. But again it is not as clear cut as he suggests. For example, it was the practice that people who had property in another area were required to go to that area to register. What if Joseph had family property in Bethlehem? We have examples of people being required to go to their hometowns. For example, a decree of C. Vibius Maximus, dated in 104 AD, ordered people to return to their hometowns for a census in Egypt. Why could that not have happened in Palestine?

But the main problem is that Tom does not take into account Luke's intelligence, honesty and methodology. In Luke 1:1-3, Luke speaks of how he interviewed eyewitnesses and 'carefully investigated everything from the beginning". He was writing to Theophilus and calls him 'most excellent' which would suggest that Theophilus was a Roman of some standing.

Some have suggested he would have been a Roman governor but whether that is the case or not, the point is that he would have easy access to knowledge about censuses and governors. Why would Luke make something up which could so easily be found out to be false? That seems highly improbable not least because the purpose in writing his Gospel was to ensure that Theophilus would "know the certainty of the things you have been taught". If he could falsify some aspects that would not be helpful!

Luke was a careful historian, as careful as Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. Of course even the best of historians can make mistakes – even in this podcast Tom calls Richard Bauckham, the author of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 'Robert'! And he talks about the money lenders in the temple (they were money changers). We all make mistakes but what if Luke was also inspired by the Holy Spirit and kept from making such mistakes?

In their discussion of Christ, what is quite surprising is that Tom leaves out the writings of Paul, which are certainly the earliest written evidence we have of Christ. Tom and Dominic also assume that the supernatural should be left out of history – but what if the supernatural was history?

While writing an essay on the reasons Cromwell won the Battle of Marston Moor, I wrote a somewhat facetious ending stating that at the end of the day Cromwell would have attributed his victory to the singing of psalms, prayer and the providence of God. Much to my astonishment my tutor gave me a high mark and suggested that the next time I could include that, but not as a joke - as long as I had the other serious historical work! Why can that not be the same for the Gospels? Why should it be the de facto position that miracles don't happen and must be explained in some other way?

Do those who don't believe in the supernatural have the right to remove all supernatural incidents or explain them away any more than those who believe in the supernatural have the right to make all events supernatural? Dr Luke claims to be a historian who is also a witness to Jesus Christ. Indeed, the whole New Testament is based upon the witnesses.

Dominic suggested that the people going round claiming to do miracles were 'ten a penny'. Tom suggests that this isn't strictly accurate but even if it were the case Christianity is very different. The Christian apologists always pointed to evidence – including evidence of the miraculous. For example, Quadratus, bishop of Athens, addressed the emperor Hadrian with these words in AD 124, "Our Saviour's works, moreover, were always present: for they were real, consisting of those who had been healed of their diseases, those who had been raised from the dead; who were not only seen whilst they were being healed and raised up, but were afterwards constantly present. Nor did they remain only during the sojourn of the Saviour on earth but also a considerable time after His departure: and indeed, some of them have survived even down to our own times."

In a nutshell, Quadratus was saying, 'We have the witnesses'.

What comes over in The Rest is History podcast about the historical Jesus is the admiration and wonder that Tom especially feels for Jesus Christ. But Jesus is much more than a remarkable teacher. In the famous words of CS Lewis in Mere Christianity, words which could have been written especially for Tom, "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

Tom cites the magisterium argument. There are different magisteria – sources of authority, in this case, history and religion. But they are not necessarily rivals. Sometimes they overlap. Christianity claims to be historical. The Rest is History confirmed that. Now it's maybe time for Tom and Dominic to get religious in the sense of becoming followers of the Risen Christ! We can but pray!

This Christmas may we all know that the Christ is history and that the Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. The Jesus of history is the Jesus of today, the Jesus of history is the Lord of History. Ultimately it is all His story. He is the one we all need. Happy Christmas!

David Robertson leads The ASK Project in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.