Reimagining the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith

In the eighteenth-century, Hermann Reimarus initiated the historical search for Jesus by postulating the incarnate Christ of Christian dogma was different from the man Jesus of Nazareth. This distinction persists even today. According to the Jesus Seminar, one of the first “pillars of scholarly wisdom” is to make a distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.”[1] While many, including most evangelicals, might reject this division, it is still possible to identify a difference between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith without the two opposing each other. The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate how Christians can appropriate historical criticism by redefining this distinction while recognizing the limitations of historical inquiry.

Redefining the Jesus of History and Christ of Faith

For Christians, the historical Jesus can simply refer to those elements of Jesus’ life that historians are able to verify with a high degree of probability and certitude. This is inherently provisional since further discoveries can modify those elements. This definition also accepts that historical scholarship depends on probabilities and can only certify what was likely to have happened based on the principle of analogy.[2] The Christ of faith, on the other hand, can refer to those elements that a Christian accepts as historical but does so principally on faith. This last definition takes seriously Gotthold Lessing’s “ugly broad ditch,” which rightly concludes that much of the Gospel accounts are not self-evident or verifiable. The believer can only trust that the Gospels represent eyewitness testimonies and that those testimonies are credible.[3]

The Jesus of History

From an historio-critical perspective, several details emerge about Jesus’ life that Christians can confidently appropriate as a foundation to their faith. At the very least, Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew from northern Palestine who lived in the first-century of the Common Era. Early in his career, Jesus associated with the ministry of John the Baptist before becoming an itinerant rabbi in the Galilean region. His primary preaching was about the kingdom of God, and he amassed a following of people who spread his reputation of healing the sick and performing exorcisms. During Passover, Jesus travelled to Jerusalem where he provoked resistance from Jewish leaders, who then arranged for Jesus to stand trial for insurrection before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. This trial ultimately led to the Romans crucifying Jesus. Later, his followers claimed that he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples.[4]

Just from these minimal details, several elements aid in the appropriation of historical criticism. The first is the Jewishness of Jesus. With little doubt, Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and likely ascribed to the same basic worldview and morality as the cognitive environment surrounding him. Understanding this element is critical to interpreting Jesus’ teachings and activities. While in many aspects Jesus transcended his Jewishness, Christians today must resist the temptation of imagining him according to their modern ethnic and cultural milieu. Instead, it is important to recognize the social and cultural implications of Jesus’ Galilean context.[5]

What emerges from understanding Jesus’ Jewish environment is a decidedly social agenda that Christians often neglect. Jesus’ parables about day laborers and absentee landlords reflect the growing wealth inequality present in impoverished areas from rural Palestine. The social and economic ethics of Jesus’ teachings were not mere recommendations. Rather, the economic turmoil of Second-Temple Judaism, where the wealthy either exploited or ignored the poor, required redirecting attention to the marginalized and oppressed in society (cf. Matt. 25:39-46; Mark 10:23; Luke 6:20). This Jewish matrix was in direct conflict with the cultural values of pagan societies surrounding Galilee and demanded a revolution in Jewish ethical perceptions.[6]

From the Jewish context also appears the kingdom of God, which was the central focus of Jesus’ preaching ministry.[7] According to independent witnesses, Jesus believed the kingdom was the most important element a person could pursue (cf. Matt. 13:44-46; Gos. Thom. 76; 109). Everything else was peripheral when considering the significance of the kingdom (Q:Matt. 6:33//Luke 12:31; Matt. 10:37//Luke 14:26; Gos. Thom. 55). Thus, Jesus preached that a person should relinquish all ties to worldly affairs and focus solely on living as though the kingdom were a present reality (cf. Matt. 5:39-42; 10:28; 25:31-46; Mark 8:36-37; 12:17; Luke 6:29-30; 12:4-5). The necessary appropriation is for Christians to devote their lives to loving God and foregoing their own needs for the sake of others (Q: Matt. 7:21//Luke 6:46). Here, forgiveness, love, and self-sacrifice should continually challenge the domineering social structure.[8]

The Christ of Faith

Despite these minimalist appropriations, historical criticism still allows for belief in Christian orthodoxy. For instance, many scholars conclude that Jesus did not portray himself as the divine Son of God. This was a post-Easter reflection by later followers. Likewise, the principle of analogy precludes historians from concluding that miracles occurred in the past. Their improbable nature engenders doubt about the accuracy of “supernatural histories.”[9]

Nevertheless, there are limitations to the study of the historical Jesus. Scholars cannot pronounce with absolute certainty Jesus’ psychological self-perception. He may have known that he was divine but strategically chose not to disclose that information overtly. Similarly, part of kenotic Christology is to accept certain limitations on Jesus’ knowledge (cf. Mark 13:32; Luke 2:40). Ignorance of his own divinity may reflect a functional aspect of the incarnation rather than a defect in his ontology. Regarding miracles, historical criticism cannot discount the occurrence of miracles as a fact of history simply because they are unusual or unverifiable. Only strong anti-supernaturalism can claim that naturalistic occurrences are “historical” while supernatural events are legendary fabrications. Rather, genuine miracles could have transpired in the past while remaining undetectable and unverifiable by the practices of modern historiography. Scholars can only attempt to judge whether the miraculous reports are honest depictions and devoid of ideological agendas. Apart from the resurrection and incarnation, nothing about Christian orthodoxy relies on the historical accuracy of most of the miracle narratives in the Gospels.[10]

Conclusion

Ultimately, historical criticism does not automatically eliminate the Christ of faith. Historians are limited in their scope and ability to verify many aspects of Jesus’ life. Historiography can only reconstruct the past based on verifiable evidences, which are often scarce, and critical examinations, which are provisional.[11] Nonetheless, Christians can still appropriate much of historical criticism because it is not a threat to the Christian faith. Christians do not need to disavow the practices of historiography nor should they conclude that the Bible is exempt from historical and critical inquiry. Instead, believers must recognize the lack of historical assurances that exist for many articles of faith and doctrine while realizing that this does not necessitate abandoning those beliefs simply because they derive principally from faith.


  1. Hermann Samuel Reimarus, “Concerning the Intention of Jesus and His Teaching,” in Reimarus: Fragments, ed. Charles H. Talbert, trans. Ralph S. Fraser (London: SCM Press, 1970), 59-134; Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, New Translation and Commentary, Pbk. ed. (1993; repr., New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 2-8.

  2. Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria, trans. M. Eugene Boring (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 172-225. Gary Habermas acknowledges this criteria when he writes, “Realizing also that history deals with probabilities, we need to ascertain as nearly as possible those facts that best fit the data….We therefore decide on the evidence at hand—choosing the most probable conclusion” (Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ [Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996], 264, 270).

  3. See Gotthold E. Lessing, “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power,” in Lessing's Theological Writings, trans. Henry Chadwick A Library of Modern Religious Thought (1956; repr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957), 51-56.

  4. These minimal elements presuppose a rejection of the mythicist’s claim that Jesus of Nazareth was either an obscure man whom the church later transformed into a mystical divinity or a nonexistent person invented out of pagan mythologies. See Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Pbk. ed. (2012; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2013), 11-34, 177-264. For evidence of these minimal details, see Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 35-174, 268-71; Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 55-83; and Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 143-255.

  5. Cf. James H. Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism: New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries (London: SPCK, 1988); Bernard J. Lee S.M., The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus: Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity, vol. 1, Conversation on the Road Not Taken, Studies in Judaism and Christianity – A Stimulus Book (New York: Paulist Press, 1988); Harald Hegstad, “Der Erlöser der Heiden oder Israels Messias? Zur Frage der theologischen und christologischen Bedeutung des Judeseins Jesu,” Kerygma und Dogma 40, no. 1 (January - March 1994): 32-46; Bernard Reitsma, “The Jewishness of Jesus: Relevant or Essential?,” Theological Review 26, no. 1 (2005): 55-69; and Daniel J. Harrington, “The Jewishness of Jesus: Facing Some Problems,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49, no. 1 (January 1987): 1-13.

  6. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 26-31. See also, John Dominic Crossan, “Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology,” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, Spectrum Multiview Books (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 105-52.

  7. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, vol. 1, Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 383-487; James H. Charlesworth, “Jesus Research Expands with Chaotic Creativity,” in Images of Jesus Today, ed. James H. Charlesworth and Walter P. Weaver, Faith and Scholarship Colloquies 3 (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 10; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 2, Mentor, Message, and Miracles, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 237-506; Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, esp. 141-62, 167-81.

  8. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 109-33, 189-232, 255-89; Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, 167-81.

  9. See the discussions in Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), 281-315, 514-23 and Robert M. Price, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point,” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, Spectrum Multiview Books (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 56-62.

  10. For an in-depth examination on the appropriation of historical criticism and the limits of historiography, see Michael J. Daling and Christopher M. Hays, “The Historical Jesus,” in Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, ed. Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 158-81. Of course, Christians should be aware that the predominant problem with making these types of statements is that they appear to be ad hoc rationalizations attempting to rescue the credibility of Christianity from counterevidence that suggests otherwise.

  11. Luke Timothy Johnson, “Learning the Human Jesus: Historical Criticism and Literary Criticism,” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, Spectrum Multiview Books (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 157-167; The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, Pbk. ed. (1996; repr., New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 81-104.

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