Imagine you know nothing of
Christianity - nothing about Jesus, about Christmas or about Easter. Then
suppose that someone tells you of a certain great man who changed the face
of Western civilisation, and whose influence is felt throughout the world
to this day, some two thousand years later.
listen, politely at first and then with mounting interest. If this is true,
you think, I need to know more about this person. "Where can I find a
biography about him?" you enquire. "How do I learn more? What are the
You may be surprised by the wide variety of
responses you receive. All agree that this person lived in the context of a
particular civilisation and culture, for a number of years. None will
dispute that his name in Hebrew was Yeshua, which is rendered
Iesous in Greek and Jesus
"Where was Jesus born?" you ask. Some
tell you he was born in a town called Bethlehem and others that he was born
in Nazareth. Using the Christian calendar as you do, you suppose that Jesus
was born in the year zero. "No," you're told. "Some think he was born four
years before then, and others that he was born six years before. Nobody is
At this point you might be forgiven for
wondering how reliable other information about Jesus will turn out to be if
his followers can't even tell you the year of his birth. After all, their
claims for him include startling events such as walking on water and
resurrection from death - so what really happened is particularly
important to you.
The facts about Jesus are, to your
21st century mind, critical. If we know next to nothing about him, why the
fuss? If we know something about him, how reliable are our sources? Do they
have the same weight as, for example, our sources for the facts of
History is the branch of thought
under which such questions fall. Most people think of the historian as
someone who finds out what happened, puts the facts together in sequence,
and then comments on cause and effect.
Unfortunately history is not that simple, especially with regard to "the
facts" of Christianity.
History in the modern sense
did not exist before the 16th century. Accounts of past and present events
were written as long ago as the 5th century
BC by the Greek Herodotus. Other Greek and Roman historians followed
- but only Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War got
anything like close to the modern critical, analytical type of history.
History as an account of "what really happened" was retarded for a thousand
years with the advent the Christian Church as a major social power in the
West. I can do no better than quote Dennis Nineham :
With rare exceptions [the] Christian faith ... was
based on unquestioning acceptance of the entire contents of the Bible
... complete credence was given to biblical accounts of the past ...
Apart from the need to harmonize a few apparent discrepancies,
theologians felt able to accept the biblical story at face value ...
Their acceptance was based upon an underlying belief
about reality so deeply rooted as to be almost beyond consciousness. This
belief was that our world is only part of a much greater reality. Our
dimension merges imperceptibly into what we now call the supernatural.
This belief was accepted in much the same way as we accept that the sun
will rise in the east tomorrow. We seldom wonder about it, almost never
question it, and live our lives as though nothing else is likely to be the
Belief in the supernatural implied - and
still does for a majority - that a dimension external to the universe can
impact us. God, who is master and king of both the natural and the
supernatural, constantly intervenes in this world to order the affairs of
nature and humankind. Augustine of Hippo built this idea up further with his
City of God in the early 5th century. He saw history moving in a single
linear direction. God was guiding events towards the last days in which the
Christian endeavour would be vindicated. God's city would be founded and
Christians would rule over everyone else.
God's guidance of history was, it was thought, a gift to us of the Bible.
Some thought that God had dictated its exact contents to those who wrote it
down. A more sophisticated opinion granted the Bible's human authors some
input - but only in the sense that they accurately recorded "the wonderful
works of God" in the world. Once Christianity had reached pride of place in
Western civilisation most people thought that the Bible was the final
authority on all they needed to know.
of history assumes recurrent divine intervention at every level of human
experience. It held the high ground until the 16th century when an entirely
new way of thinking gradually made its entrance onto the world stage. What
we today know as history then began a rapid advance in scope, technique and
An example may clarify the potential effects
of the new historical method. A document called The Donation of
Constantine purported to prove that the Roman Emperor had in 314 given
great powers to Sylvester, the then Bishop of Rome. These were supposed to
have included authority over all other churches, power as supreme judge of
the clergy, and even an offer of the Imperial crown.
The Donation was used by the See of Rome
for some 500 years to assert ecclesiastical authority over secular powers.
Nicholas of Cusa's research in the 15th century into it's origins showed
conclusively that the Donation was a fake. His work helped
precipitate relatively rapid changes in the balance of power between Church
and State in the West. It culminated in the Reformation and the rise of the
modern secular state.
The historical method as
developed in the centuries which followed Nicholas of Cusa is one of the
many new disciplines which have transformed the world. Its complex
structures can be summarised only inadequately here:
- All historical investigation is prefaced by
scepticism rather than prior acceptance of the voice of authority. As
many data are collected as possible - but none is automatically accepted
as valid, true or useful.
- History is assumed to be a seamless web of
events, a complex system far beyond our comprehension. The
analytical process of history is one by which we break up data to
yield "facts." These facts stand alone only as an artificial aid to
understanding. In reality, we can't know the complete history of
- Good history is impossible unless the historian
is free to think and explore entirely independently of dogma or
- All data are potentially useful to the historian.
History is field-encompassing in that it can and does use
information from all other fields of knowledge
- All data to be validly used in history must be
"tortured". That is, it must be tested to destruction to ensure that
it is what it purports to be and that is has contextual validity -
that it "fits" the seamless web of history.
- The historian must therefore justify selection of
data and conclusions drawn from it. Statements of opinion don't
qualify as history unless backed up by solid data.
- Historians must submit their work to the
judgement first of peers, and then of everyone. Work at first judged
as poor may, with new or better data, eventually receive approval.
But until a substantial body of peers does approve it, that history
must remain in the wilderness.
- All conclusions of history are by definition
provisional. Any may overturned (or reinstated) by new evidence or
Perhaps ironically, the historical method was developed
partly by investigation of the historical accuracy of the Bible. If the
Church could be shown to have been grossly deceived by the Donation,
asked critics, what other foundations of Christianity might now crumble?
Why, for example, should one skip over internal contradictions in the
Bible? And why should events like the Resurrection be accepted as good
history even though highly unlikely in the context of modern knowledge?
What might the new discipline of archeology contribute to history in the
context of the Christian faith? If Darwin's Origin of Species was
true, how could the account of creation in Genesis
also be true?
My strong impression is that traditional Christianity
has been, and still is, constantly on the defensive against the
methodology of history. Two examples strike me.
The "faith is all" movement Scholar after
scholar has used analytical methods and new data to question that the
Bible is good history. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century
existentialist, in response to this questioning tried to reduce the
dependence of Christianity on its historical roots.
Historians rightly maintain that if Christianity
claims to be an historical religion, then it is fair game for rigorous
investigation. To say that I have faith in the person of Jesus of
Nazareth is, they noted, an historical claim. Jesus was a real person
who lived, as we all do, within the seamless web of cause and effect we
call history. If, for example, his skeleton were to be discovered by an
archeologist, anyone who accepts the methods of history would be forced
to conclude that Jesus did not come to life again after dying.
Not so, said Kierkegaard. "If the contemporary
generation had nothing left behind them but these words: 'We have
believed that in such and such a year God appeared among us in the
humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community,
and finally died,' it would be more than enough," he wrote.
In other words, Kierkegaard dismissed the problem
entirely. He could do so because he claimed - in common with many other
Christians then and now - that "there is no disciple second-hand". What
he meant by this is that faith comes not from the Jesus of history but
from a here-and-now encounter with a contemporary Christ.
All we need, therefore, is a record of our ancestors
in the faith, beginning with the disciples and ending with our
contemporaries. Even if the Bible isn't good history, it's a record of
what others believed about Jesus and that's enough.
This argument isn't conclusive, however. What if the
Bible isn't good evidence even about the disciples? What if our records
of past Christians are bad history? That doesn't matter, Kierkegaard
would reply. We can achieve faith through life-changing contact with
Jesus as Christ today independently even of other witnesses.
Existentialist theologians typified by Karl Barth in
the early and mid-twentieth century took a similar line. The Bible, they
said, can and must be "tortured" to sort out good from bad history. We
must try to discover "what really happened." But historical methods can
take one only so far. A point is reached when only "the eye of faith"
can see the truth. Faith, then, can validly take one beyond the limits
of historical investigation.
Some theologians in the 21st century propose similar
escape routes. J P Meier's A Marginal Jew, for example,
faithfully tortures, in searching detail, evidence for the historicity
of much of the life of Jesus. But he stops short at a certain point in
the torturing process. So, for example, he tests the evidence for Jesus'
survival after death. But he then goes on to argue that "the
resurrection stands outside of the sort of questing by way of
historical, critical research that is done for the life of the
historical Jesus, because of the nature of the resurrection. The
resurrection of Jesus is certainly supremely real. However, not
everything that is real either exists in time and space or is
empirically verifiable by historical means."
 Historical Criticism in A New
Dictionary of Christian Theology, 1983
 The Historian and the Believer, Van Austin Harvey, 1966