Jesus is no longer a sacred subject in our culture. Scholars feel free to cast doubts on almost any aspect of his life and construct counter-hypotheses to explain his life. Internet ‘instant experts’ confidently state that he didn’t exist. Some christians are deeply disturbed by these claims and doubts. And we may all find it difficult to share our faith in Jesus when our friends may doubt the gospels contain any historical truth.
What can we say to all this?
I have already posted on some aspects of this:
- how Archaeology supports accuracy of John’s Gospel
- a christian approach to New Testament history (Jesus and history);
- the idea put forward by some people that the Jesus stories are just a myth (Jesus was just a myth?).
It seems to me that, if we want to construct a rational basis for belief, we need to start with what ought to be common ground – the consensus of what secular historians have concluded about Jesus. This will not cover everything we believe, but can be a ‘lowest common denominator’ when discussing with sceptical non-believers.
What the historians conclude
Historians are very careful in their conclusions, treating the New Testament as they would any other document. You may therefore be surprised at how much of christian belief about Jesus they endorse (see Jesus and the historians for more detail).
For example, historians generally believe that Jesus was famous in his time as a healer and exorcist as well as a teacher, that he was consciously acting as the Jewish Messiah and that he was intending to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. While many historians either do not believe in the resurrection or do not comment on whether it really occurred, even some of the most sceptical believe that Jesus’ tomb was found empty just a few days after he was buried, that his followers saw him after his death (however they might ‘explain’ that), that belief in his bodily resurrection was not a later myth but was part of christianity from the beginning, and that belief in the resurrection was a major impetus in the spreading of christianity.
How should christians respond?
For some, this will all be of little importance (they already know the stories are true) or even offensive. This is fine for those whose faith works that way. But for those of us who want to be sure we have a rational and evidential basis for our belief, these facts are very compelling. Most of the important parts of the gospels have a good historical basis, and we have good reason to trust the parts that the historians are unable to endorse. (I will post further on how faith springs from historical facts soon.)
And for these who have opportunity to discuss with sceptical friends, these facts provide us with good grounds. If sceptics claim there is no evidence for Jesus, we can point out that historical study does not support this scepticism. If they propose some hypothesis that Jesus was a myth, we can politely ask why we should believe them rather than the most eminent historians.
In the end, I believe only two hypotheses can reasonably be defended – either Jesus was a good man who mistakenly thought he was a prophet of God, and whose disciples re-interpreted his message, or he was divine, as christians believe him to be. And there are good reasons to think that he wasn’t mistaken, for the christian understanding is consistent, and it is difficult to construct an alternative hypothesis that explains all the facts, including the later growth of christianity. So starting with the secular historians seems to me to provide a strong basis for both faith and apologetics.