Who was the historical Jesus? After a semester's worth of studying samples of New Testament scholarship, a summary of what these various scholars believe is historical about Jesus is now in order. Amidst the many conservative and liberal scholars in the field, many of whom stand out as intellectual powerhouses, Luke Timothy Johnson, John P. Meier, and Joseph Fitzmyer are like a breath of fresh moderate air. These three scholars offer their reasons for what can be known historically about Jesus of Nazareth. Some of these reasons overlap, but they provide an excellent illustration of what is almost universally accepted to be knowledge of the historical Jesus.
After mentioning the historical Jesus, I will now contradict myself in turning to Luke Timothy Johnson. It is not that Johnson believes that nothing can be known about Jesus by means of the historical method; but, he does not think that the search for the historical Jesus is on the right path. Johnson states: “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate, and continued to have followers after his death.” He continues (emphasis in original), “as a historian, I can only state them as more or less probable, on the basis of the evidence available for verification” (Johnson, p. 123).
The historical facts that Johnson mentions are all at the core of who we have traditionally understood Jesus to be, believer or not. To offer an illustration, if someone mentions “Doug Benscoter,” but says that this Doug is not the same as the second son of Dan Benscoter II, then we know we are not talking about the same person that is writing this. To put it abstractly, if something is true of one thing, but not of another, then the two cannot be identical. The significance of this is that if any of the historical facts of Jesus are not true of the “real” Jesus, then the two cannot be the same person. However, we find that history confirms at least some of the facts concerning the real Jesus, even if the historical method cannot prove all of them.
What does Johnson mean by the “real” Jesus, though? He obviously distinguishes the historical Jesus from the real Jesus. At the center of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus. Johnson comments, “If the resurrection were a matter of visions and locutions of a dead person experienced by some followers, then it would be 'historical' not as part of the history of Jesus but as part of the story of his followers . . .” (Johnson, p. 136). This is important, since Johnson shifts the historicity of the resurrection from a fact about Jesus to a fact about the immediate disciples of Jesus. As I've documented in another essay, John Dominic Crossan agrees that this is historical, but denies that the resurrection actually occurred. For Johnson, then, history deals only with those things that occur within time and space (Johnson, p. 136), but since the resurrection occurred outside of time and space, we cannot use the historical method to verify its authenticity.
Johnson prefers what is experiential in order to determine what is real about Jesus. He concludes, “the resurrection of Jesus . . . can be said to be 'historical' as an experience and claim of human beings, then and today, that organizes their lives and generates their activities. . . . I hold that some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was, and to necessitate the sort of literature the New Testament is” (Johnson, p. 136). These experiences may require us to delve into philosophy and apologetics, but as per Johnson's definition of “history,” the resurrection is beyond the historical method's criteria of verification.
Meier and Fitzmyer both use their own reasonable historical methods to arrive at similar conclusions about what can be known of the historical Jesus. Meier has been covered through much of this course, and his commentary has been very helpful indeed. He arrives at virtually the same conclusions – that Jesus was a (marginal) Jew in first century Palestine, who was put to death under Pontius Pilate and had disciples who continued his ministry. Meier also considers many questions that are normally not asked in a book about the historicity of Jesus – things like whether Jesus was literate or was married and had a family. Of course, these questions do not make up the historical “core,” but remain interesting speculations nonetheless.
Fitzmyer's work is quite interesting as well, and not simply as a means to reiterate what has already been established as historically true of Jesus. For example, the twenty-third question he answers deals specifically with a high-level Christology. Of course, this concerns theology, and not necessary history, but it can be related to history in the sense that we can learn something about what the earliest followers of Jesus believed about him. Fitzmyer points out: “Even those New Testament interpreters who would regard some of the early speeches in Acts as reflecting the primitive kerygma, a view that is not universally admitted, would have to agree that 'Son' is hardly a title associated with this form of the kerygma. . . . The phrase 'equality with God' is used of Jesus in the pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2:6. But it is quite disputed in what sense that phrase is to be understood” (Fitzmyer, pp. 108-109). In other words, did the earliest Christians believe that Jesus is God – that he is equal to the Father? Fitzmyer has some reservations about this, but sees Jesus as highly elevated in any case. While accepting the view that John's notion of Jesus' unity with the Father is not merely a Johannine redaction, Fitzmyer continues: “the Christian reflection and meditation present in [John] are likewise a prime factor in the gradual development of explicit ontological christology (i.e. a belief in the intrinsic constitution of Christ and of his relation to the Father)” (Fitzmyer, pp. 109-110).
Fitzmyer's view can supplement Johnson's own criteria of the experiential and living Jesus. For, it is not the case that our understanding of Jesus is simply a static view, insusceptible to any change or development. Instead, the evolution of our understanding of the real Jesus is precisely part of what it means for something (or in this case, someone) to be alive and capable of being experienced in the minds and hearts of believers.
I wanted to shift Meier and Fitzmyer away from a mere reiteration of what can be known about Jesus “historically,” since this has already been covered in the analysis of Johnson. Neither Meier not Fitzmyer would disagree with Johnson's conclusion about the historical facts of Jesus. Nevertheless, each scholar provides his own insightful take on what constitutes evidence for who the historical Jesus was (and is), and what even constitutes a meaningful question as it relates to historical inquiry. Obviously, there is much freedom to determine what is “historical” of Jesus, and of the New Testament in general (Fitzmyer, p. 150). However, the question that is most relevant to us as human persons is what Johnson spells out in some detail – can Jesus be experienced today and, if so, what significance does he have for our lives? I personally agree with Peter that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). This is a very powerful proclamation, one that leads my own life to the utmost extent. But, can these titles (Christ, Son of the living God, among others) be subject to historical methods? That all depends upon how one defines “history” in the first place.
Overall, there are quite a few historical facts that can be known about Jesus. There are certainly more things we can know with confidence about Jesus than about most other figures of ancient history. Exactly how much can we know about Confucius, for example? On the other hand, we know that Jesus was a first century Jew, who lived in Palestine, preached the kingdom of God, worked wonders, was put to death under Pontius Pilate, and had a group of followers who claimed that God had raised him from the dead. These are historical considerations, and they give us the incentive to look further into what is real about Jesus, especially about the last claim. If Jesus had truly been raised from the dead, then that would constitute a divine miracle, which is the very ground of our Christian faith.