This is the second part of a two-part post on the importance of history and historical work—like the quest for the historical Jesus—for studying and proclaiming the Gospels. For the first part, see “Why Christians Need History.”
Since history matters, since it’s necessary (part one), then the quest for the historical Jesus matters. Here let me suggest two specific reasons why. First, if you plan to have a conversation with your neighbor about Jesus, the conversation will undoubtedly be influenced by the quest for the historical Jesus. Perhaps you’ve had the experience—I have—of sharing this or that piece of the Christian worldview with an unbelieving friend only to have her say, “Well, that’s just what the Bible says; how do you know that’s what Jesus really taught?” The question may not have appeared quite so often in your parents’ or grandparents’ visitation reports, but it will in yours, especially if your evangelistic work takes place in the shadow of a university or, for that matter, a mosque. This is the conversation people are having. (Did anyone miss “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”?) Thus, as James Dunn reminds us, if we want
to continue to make any kind of truth claims of relevance beyond the confines of [our] churches, then [we’ve got] to make them within [this] public forum. The alternative is to settle back into an internal ecclesiastical discourse which cannot be understood or effectively communicated outside the ekklesia (Jesus Remembered).
Second, not only is this the conversation your neighbor is having, but it’s also the one he’s hiding behind. He’s adopted one or another of the quest’s Jesuses and assumes he’s put the lie to orthodox Christianity. Your neighbor, in other words, is making a historical claim, whether he recognizes it or not. He’s appealing to history and to history you must go. How else do you plan to confront these alternative pictures of Jesus—these alternative faiths—produced by the quest and its popularizers. How, e.g., can Dan Brown’s Jesus be put to rest if not by a thorough account of who Jesus actually was. One simply cannot say to Brown or his disciples—“You’re wrong and I’m right, though I refuse to argue the relative merits of our historical claims.” Not only would the assertion to “believe the Gospels”—to accept my faith—fail apologetically but it would unwittingly give the impression that Christianity can stand loose from history, that its merits can rise or fall irrespective of what really happened. When Paul turns to talk about the resurrection in one of his letters to the Corinthians, he doesn’t simply say, “I said it”—which today would be like saying “It’s in Scripture”—“therefore believe it.” Rather, he starts talking about witnesses, 500 of them, many of whom were probably still living at the time Paul wrote and thus able to receive skeptical visitors.
In short, we must wrestle with the quest and its answers if we want to put ourselves in a position to urge others—those outside the charmed circle of our churches—to consider what the real Jesus might mean for them. Or to put it another way around. If Jesus did say what the Gospels record, if he was killed for the reasons the Gospels give, if he was raised as the Gospels claim, then it matters what your neighbor does with this Jesus. His, he can take or, more likely, leave. If the Gospels are fundamentally accurate, then, e.g., the eternally-popular idea that Jesus was a good teacher and example is a closed door, a non-option. If the Gospels are fundamentally accurate, one is not allowed to say that Jesus was simply a good teacher, full stop, or that he was simply a good example, full stop. The Gospels won’t allow this sort of nonsense. It’s a violent domestication of their message. Historical work—the kind that shows the world the kind of literature the Gospels really are—forces critics of Christianity to do away with silly—sentimental—notions about Jesus and to meet him full on. And the quest, at its best, gives us the resources to do just this sort of thing.