A little over a hundred years ago, the old liberal theologians were faced with a question. Since they did not believe in the intervention of the supernatural into the natural world, they had essentially discounted those parts of the Gospel records that narrated such supernatural intervention. If the Jesus who was portrayed in the Gospels was not a Jesus limited to the time and space boundaries of the presuppositions of secular history, then how do you account for a Jesus who, in the theological liberal mind, was the “real” Jesus, the “historical Jesus”?
“In this idiom, the “historical Jesus” is a technical phrase, designating a hypothetical Jesus who could be interpreted exclusively in human, ordinary historical categories. The Gospel portrait of Jesus is that of a divine man; the “historical Jesus” could not be divine, for history has no room for the category of deity. The “historical Jesus” is a hypotheses reconstructed from the Gospels by the use of the historical-critical method on the basis of naturalistic presuppositions. Such a Jesus must by definition be altogether and only human—a Jesus without transcendence.” (George E. Ladd,A Theology of the New Testament, (1974), p. 178)
Ladd goes on to document the failure of the “historical Jesus” movement. The ethical prophet, the apocalyptic Jesus, the existential Jesus, all were insufficient.
“An “historical Jesus” has not been found who stands the test of scholarship... ” (Ibid, p.178)
In other words an “historical Jesus” who could account for the rise of the Christian faith and the Gospel accounts was not to be found. An “historical Jesus” who in Ladd’s words “was big enough to account for the rise of the Christian faith and the Gospel portrait” could not be found. It is at this point Ladd quotes Kähler:
“Whoever tries to account for the beginnings of Christianity by some purely historical, nontranscendental event, runs up against the difficulty that there seems to be no such event of sufficient magnitude or of a kind such as to fulfill the need.” (Ibid, p.179)
Some thirty plus years after Ladd’s observations on the issue, his observations and conclusions are still relevant. One of the trends I’ve noticed lately on the internet is atheistic denials that Jesus was even an historical person at all. They like to cite the lack of any secular historical evidence contemporary with the Gospel account as proof. It’s at this point Christians need to be careful how they respond. There are legitimate questions about what Josephus actually said about Jesus. That textual issue needs to be studied and carefully analyzed before it is waved in the atheist’s face.
But, let’s say, just for the sake of argument, there are no secular historical references that are contemporary with the Gospel account. Our atheist friend still faces the burden of giving an adequate and sufficient rational for the rise of Christianity and the existence of the Gospel accounts. All attempts to find an” historical Jesus”; all the different enumerations of a secular “form criticism” of the Gospels; all are inadequate.
“The Jesus who lived in history is the geschichtlich, biblical Christ who is portrayed in the Gospels. Kähler believed in the principle of causality; he insisted that only the Christ pictured in the Gospels, in whom dwelt the supernatural (ùbergeschtlich) is big enough to account for the rise of the Christian faith.” (Ibid)
The Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:1-28 clearly ties the veracity of the Christian faith to the historical redemptive events of the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. These are events the Apostle affirms as having taken place in time and space, and as events involving supernatural intervention into the natural order of time and space.
What we may tend to over look is that, in this passage, Paul is affirming the veracity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus life, and also affirming the Gospel accounts sufficiency as a portrait of the life of Jesus. All we need to know about Jesus’ life and ministry is there. Yes, it is helpful to understand the historical setting and culture of the New Testament times, but that is a far different thing then to say we need some other glasses to see the “real” or “historical Jesus” other then the glasses the Gospels themselves provide. All other glasses, rabbinic, secular, or whatever will always be insufficient. Kähler’s conclusions still stand. Only that Jesus Christ presented in the Gospels can account for the rise of Christianity, and for the Gospels themselves.
Solo Deo Gloria!
~ The Billy Goat ~