Jesus As an Historical Figure


As a Christian my faith is in the ever-present God who lives as Jesus is said to have lived—meeting our conflicts and rejection with an embrace that even death cannot dispel. Why I would believe in such a God I've addressed elsewhere, to my satisfaction if not to everybody's. I keep finding such a God to be inescapably present in ways that provoke immeasurable wonder and joy, and that suffices.

 My faith is not in conclusions historians draw about Jesus. It's in what I take to be the unconditional, "Jesus-like" embrace of the God with whom and in whom I live now. And it's in Jesus not simply as he was but as I experience him now—as God's living, "humanized" presence.

 Still, I do have opinions about Jesus as a past figure for historians to investigate, and they matter:

a) I think he was a real person who provoked all sorts of creatively shaped stories about him.

b) I think he spoke and acted in disconcerting ways that reflected his vision of the subversive nearness of God's reign—already dawning in his words and actions, but soon to arrive universally.

c) I think he was executed because his words and actions seemed politically disruptive.

d) I think that his first followers discovered that even execution couldn't keep him from animating their life in God in new and startling ways, and that some believed they had actually seen and heard him in ways they found difficult to describe.

 I think all these things about Jesus and his first followers. I think they're probably true, historically speaking. And it matters to me. I'm not sure exactly why it matters, or how much it matters, but it matters. If my opinions about Jesus changed, I don't know how that might change my faith in the God I take to be present now—maybe not that much, but I really don't know, since that's not where I am right now.

 In any case, my opinions matter to me, and I feel obliged to defend them, just as I would feel obliged to defend any opinions that matter. It's not that I couldn't possibly be wrong, but when I think I'm at least approximately right I should be clear about that and, just as importantly, about why I think so.

 My more skeptical friends like to ask me why I would even think any of this about Jesus. The only evidence for his existence seems to be material written about him decades after his alleged crucifixion (first mentioned by Paul, not the Gospels). People outside the movement, like Josephus or Pliny or Tacitus, are only reporting what members of the movement told them decades later. There's just not a lot of documentation. And any new information might radically alter our assumptions about what really happened.

 That's all true. But I think the evidence we have is more than enough to support what I currently think happened. Let me illustrate:

 Pretend you're an anthropologist. Imagine that you find a new tribe, a completely oral culture, and the tribal leader tells you this story:

 "When my great-great-grandfather was young he and his friends followed a man they called Peacemaker, who told us to stop going to war. He worked many wonders to show us that the gods endorsed what he taught. But the chief accused him of disloyalty and executed him. Peacemaker could have called upon the power of the gods to kill the chief, or he could have turned into an eagle and flown away, but instead he let himself be killed to teach us not to go to war. My great-great-grandfather and his friends were shunned and called fools, and so they left that tribe and came here to found a new tribe that did not want war. When we get angry, we remember Peacemaker and do not strike others."

 You hear that story repeated with varying details by other members of the community. This is all the evidence you have about a figure called Peacemaker. But it's enough to draw several conclusions.

 First, you would probably discount stories about the wonders Peacemaker supposedly worked or could have worked. Stories like that frequently crop up. They indicate the powerful impact a charismatic figure had. He surely had a powerful impact, but turning into an eagle was not an option. You would also probably wonder when he got his current name. (Did birth name influence his devotion to peacemaking, or did he acquire the name because of his devotion?) And you might wonder if there are some unflattering details about his life and motives that have been omitted from the "official" account.

 But it wouldn't occur to you to doubt that somebody now called Peacemaker really lived some time ago, that he tried to stop his people from going to war, that he attracted a following and provoked opposition, that he was executed, and that his followers were shunned and ridiculed. All you have is the testimony of people who were born after he and his first followers died. You don't have documentation from any other source. But you have every reason to believe that this much of their founding narrative really happened.

 Why? Because a) with varying details, these are the overall contours of the story that would not be forgotten, b) they help explain why these people now live by a rather peculiar and potentially costly ethic, and perhaps most importantly, c) they are parts of the story that would not be invented. None of them are flattering to the people telling the story. Why would a people invent details that make them and their founder look weak and inconsequential to others? It's not utterly impossible that they would do that, but it's inexplicable, and thus highly unlikely.

 Historians call this last reason the "criterion of embarrassment."  This is one of the principle criteria that New Testament scholars use to reconstruct early Christianity. It's not the only criterion, but it helps anchor the others. It doesn't "prove" that certain events really happened, because there aren't any such proofs among historians, but it introduces a presumption. Unflattering details usually have some basis in memory.

 The earliest reports we have about Jesus (via Paul) come from people who seem to be worshipping him. They tell us that this "life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:5) was also an executed criminal. It's hard to imagine that they would be mistaken about that rather glaring fact, or that they would make it up. Why would anybody start to worship an executed criminal? You could argue easily that they've deluded themselves into thinking that he's still around for them to worship, but you'd have a hard time convincing anybody that they would delude themselves about his legal execution. That's too embarrassing to invent, and too glaring not to remember.

 Likewise, the Gospels' stories about his message and actions help explain why he got executed. Some found him politically disruptive. And these accounts are also at least slightly embarrassing. Jesus preached that something universally stupendous was about to happen. What did happen was an execution followed by appearances that any skeptic could dismiss. You could argue (as I would) that this unlikely movement itself was something with universal implications, but it didn't work out the way people were expecting. Jesus' followers did see continuity between Jesus' message and their later experience of his living presence, but they didn't cover up some real, somewhat embarrassing tensions. 

 So I think that Jesus really lived and preached the subversive present/future nearness of God's reign, that this got him executed, and that his followers had to reinterpret his original message in light of what they took to be his subsequent, life-giving presence. My reasons for thinking that are, again: a) with varying details, these are the overall contours of the story that would not be forgotten, b) they help explain why these people now live by a very peculiar worldview (quite puzzling to their contemporaries), and perhaps most importantly, c) they are parts of the story that would not be invented.

 That's where I am now.

—Fr. Charles Allen