The Jesus Hypothesis

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The Jesus Hypothesis

In the context of a recent series of blog posts by James McGrath arguing that Jesus-mythicism is akin to Creationism, Tom Verenna switches things up by posting an article calling Jesus-historicists to task for losing sight of the fact that the 'historical Jesus' is a hypothesis -- actually, many hypotheses. Tom Verenna writes:

Locating the Hypothetical Jesus[1]

For most students of New Testament studies, curriculum is formulated around the ‘fact’ that a historical Jesus lived and died in a historical Palestine.  Indeed, the functions of many modern New Testament studies are to locate that historical core within early Christian literature.  But what used to be a scholarly pursuit has become, in our contemporary age, a cultural icon.   For those who care little for the scholarly nuances which pepper books like The Historical Jesus (1991) and Jesus the Jew (1973), the History Channel runs programs like The Unknown Jesus (2005) and The Trial of Jesus (2004); even PBS Frontline aired a special on the Historical Jesus called From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians (1998).  U.S. News put out a special collector’s edition called Mysteries of Faith: Secrets of Christianity (2008) which focuses on the historicity of the figure of Jesus and the early Christians which followed him.  The historical Jesus has become the standard alternative to the only other well-known Jesus—a mythical, miraculous, water-to-wine Jesus—and, with little exception, this standard remains unchallenged.

What the Jesus Seminar has done, along with all of the media programs, is they have taken the hypothetical Jesus and turned him into a fact.  Jesus, as quoted from one of the sources above, is said to have been “a brilliant, witty, intensely attractive, enigmatic, and visionary man.”[2] To Paula Fredriksen, Jesus “was born in Nazareth in one of the most turbulent periods of Jewish history…received John’s message…was baptized in the Jordan…and…during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover…and…on the night of Passover…a posse of Roman soldiers, assisted by some officers of the Temple guard, surprised Jesus and arrested him.  Interrogated briefly by the High Priest, Jesus was condemned by Pilate, who executed him as a messianic pretender.”[3] This is, according to Fredriksen, “the historical Jesus.”[4] John Dominic Crossan wrote:[5]

Suppose that in such a situation you wanted to know not just what early believers wrote about Jesus but what you would have seen and heard if you had been a more or less neutral observer in the early decades of the first century.  Clearly, some people ignored him, some worshipped him, and others crucified him.

And E.P. Sanders opens one of his books with the following conclusion:[6]

On a spring morning in about the year 30 CE, three men were executed by the Roman authorities in Judaea.  Two were ‘brigands,’ men who may have been robbers, bandits or highwaymen, interested only in their own profit, but who may have also been insurgents, whose banditry had a political aim.  The third was executed as another type of political criminal.  He had not robbed, pillaged, murdered or even stored arms.  He was convicted, however, of having claimed to be ‘king of the Jews’—a political title….It turned out, of course, that the third man, Jesus of Nazareth, would become one of the most important figures in human history.

To these scholars (and, as we shall see, many others) Jesus, it is taken for granted, lived.  This sort of assumption is held firm under the guise of credible historical investigation.   However, the truth is, by making this sort of assumption historical Jesus scholars are favoring some data, interpreting others in a biased manner, and ignoring other data all together. This is not history, rather it is hermeneutics.[7]

The role of the historian is one which is interconnected with the role of the history the historian is interpreting.  The foundation of the assumption of a historical Jesus is that Jesus existed; that this is a fact.  Not only is this fact to the historical Jesus scholar but it is a fact that is considered to be beyond dispute.  So sure are they of this fact that, as will be shown, they will openly misinterpret or express dishonestly the views of scholars and historians who, upon their own investigations, have come to suggest that, perhaps, Jesus did not historically exist.

However, the truth is far from where historical Jesus scholars have pinned it.  The varying degrees at which one interprets the data paint a picture which resembles more a Picasso than a da Vinci.  That the image of this historical Jesus has become so much more a popular icon in today’s world is not more evidence for the validity of the historicity of this Jesus but is growing evidence against it.   While the media is at fault, it does not hold all of the guilt.  Both the media and academia paint disfigured ‘Jesuses’, they just do so in different ways; the media paints frescos with mops while historical Jesus scholars use fine brushes on canvas.  In the end, no matter how much sway the media may have with their works of art, scholarship is at the root of the problem.  Like with the controversy over the hypothetical Q source, academia is the parent of historical Jesus research who is often neglectful and even abusive.

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