Studying the Historical Jesus

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Jesus

We take a look at whether Jesus, a figure renowned and known for his spiritual power as God, can also be studied in a historical manner.

When studying Jesus it is important for all historians, believer and non-believer alike, to view him in a historical context. The historical Jesus is in reference to the human being that was born approximately two thousand years ago, about whose life there are historical documents that bear witness. To historians the Jesus in question is a man based upon facts that can be verified with direct personal experiences and accounts. It is not the Jesus of people’s present personal, emotional and spiritual experiences, which lie beyond the realm and scope of historical research.

When we as historians look to study the historical Jesus we must take into effect the resources that history has allowed to pass through the generations. We are studying a figure that lived and died in the ancient world, in the past, and in studying him and drawing conclusions about him we try to limit ourselves only to what we can confirm from historical data. One resource that comes to mind when researching this topic are the gospels, composed of several different interpretations, rewritten many times over in order to better understand it, the bible is both a book of spirituality and history. What many question is how much of the history within this book can truly be proven.

Jesus is Born

The life of the historical Jesus begins the same way in which all humans begin their lives, at birth. There are many controversies surrounding the conception of Jesus, but that is a religious and personal conflict, which historians cannot prove or disprove, the more relevant topic at hand is what his true date of birth is. Historians needed some sort of information gathered from past records to truly pinpoint the real date. Both Matthew and Luke wrote stories about Jesus’ early life, but Luke’s stories could not be believed to be true. They did however use other people from the time to help shed some light on things. For instance, John the Baptist was supposedly born before Jesus. So to pinpoint his exact birth would help narrow down the choices. Unfortunately not enough information could help bring about any truths. King Herod however opened up the flood gates of information. Herod the ruler over the roman controlled Jerusalem, was an evil and vindictive leader. He demanded that all children two years or younger be killed as to kill off anyone who would someday succeed him. It was recorded that Herod had died about two years after Jesus’ birth. This then gives a better estimate of 6-4 b. c.

Every person goes on their own personal quest or journey one way or another throughout life. For Jesus, his would change how millions believe. The date of his death as well seems unsure. Originally historians placed the crucifixion in the year 30 A.D., but according to other historical events this maybe proven wrong. The main being that, Pilate may not have been in full power within the region in the year 30 and his predecessor Sejanus was believed to still be in charge up until the year 31 when he was executed, with that in mind and everything that happened over the course of Pilate’s rule, it is more accurately believed that Jesus died in the year 33 A.D. “Date ranges for ancient figures are not unusual given the fragmentary nature of our data. Yet even in the absence of precise detail, important and interesting facts about the setting of Jesus’ life emerge, and a solid approximation of his dates is possible”.

Understanding the Culture and Context of Jesus

In order for historians to get a better solution to these biblical mysteries, they have to first analyze both the cultures and religions of the times. Religion obviously played an important background in the events that transpired around Jesus’ life, Judaism being the prominent faith in the particular region. The teachings of the Jew’s had great influence on many of Jesus’ teachings, one being the practice of monotheism, or the belief in one god. They also believed in the coming of a messiah or prophet that would lead their people to the ‘promised land’. The introduction of Jesus within this society greatly altered it dramatically. Many Jews believed in Jesus teachings, and were quick to follow, where as others were very skeptical and disgusted by the fact that he was being perceived as a prophet and viewed it as blasphemy.

With any belief, there is criticism. The earliest known form of this derived from the Reformation. People wanted to view the bible as more of a piece of literature then divine writings. The Renaissance was an age of rebirth, and a time when scholars looked back at ancient texts and analyzed them with a new approach of thinking. The bible was of course no exception. The origin of the first criticism came from two men, one being Johann Semler, and the other Johann Michaelis. “Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) emphasized the historical character of the work as distinct from the theological approach to the documents. Thus he pursued the question of the date, authorship, and the setting of the new testament books…”.

Source Criticism and Form Criticism

Over the past two thousand years there have been many different forms of criticism, one being source criticism. This is the study of the new testaments doctrines themselves. It focuses on the statements and facts and tries to decipher whether it truly happened or not, there is also form criticism that comes into play. Form criticism is how something is formed. In this case “for the gospels, more complicated question is how the Jesus material was circulated in units and ‘passed on’ as tradition that eventually became written”. The Christian scriptures were not all immediately written after Christ’s death, the stories were passed on orally across all of the Mediterranean. What Historians try to look at in this situation is if any of these accounts were altered as they were passed on.

Can Historians Study the Historical Jesus?

History deals in probabilities, in evidence, in regularities. Historians, if not presented with any evidence disproving or proving the topic under study, cannot make a proper conclusion. Christianity, unlike other religions, focuses on historical events in the past and claims that those events are crucial to things like knowing God and eternal life. The true question at hand is can one be a believer of the faith and at the same time deal with the gospels in a historical sense? I believe that is definitely a possibility, in fact it is crucial for a believer in the faith to know that these facts which occurred in the bible are accurate and also that what is spoken must be placed into the context of the era to thoroughly understand the message. There is a certain level of interpretation that has to be done when reading the bible and it is necessary to understand that the meanings of certain words and situations that may be different from how we understand them in a modern sense. The historical study of Jesus will raise many issues and questions that historical study cannot answer. It goes far beyond just the historical and delves into the psychological, philosophical and theological and that is what is so remarkable about the study of Jesus. Whatever religious significance Jesus has for modern people it cannot be demonstrated by historical study, however even through eyes of faith you can see Jesus in a historical context.

Sources:

  1. Bock, Darrell.Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to sources and methods(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002).