Peter Enns (Rethinking Biblical Christianity) has posted a “brief thought about scholarship, scepticism and apologetics” in relation to this question. It is a quotation from Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz’s The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, and makes a refreshing and welcome read given its avoidance of the hostile tone too often encountered on both sides of the discussion.
My own comments:
Peter’s opening quotation frames those who reject the historicity of Jesus as “radical skeptics”. As I have posted before, I don’t quite understand what is meant by a radical sceptic as opposed to any other type of sceptic, and surely scepticism is a valid and sound approach to any scholarly or scientific inquiry. I sometimes wonder if the term “radical scepticism” is meant to convey the notion of unreasonable and wilful dismissal of “common sense”. But the examples Peter offers of historicity doubters — Bruno Bauer, Albert Kalthoff, Arthur Drews — could scarcely be accused of that in their methods of argument whatever we think of their conclusions.
An interesting point follows:
Here historical skepticism appears within or outside theology, often with a great ethical solemnity, and foists on its critics the ungrateful role of apologists driven by their wishes. This is quite wrong. In discussion of the historical Jesus nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism.
It is absolutely true that in any discussion (not just of the historical Jesus) “nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism”. However, if it comes to discussions on the historicity of Jesus the last people I would ever be interested in engaging are “apologists”. Apologists ever since the second century have a bad name for lacing their arguments with personal vitriol. No thanks. I’d rather engage with people I can respect as open to scholarly methods and reasonable discussion wherever that may lead.
There is another assumption, then, that may be true of some deniers of the historicity of Jesus but is certainly not true of all:
Outside theology skepticism wants to rob Christianity of its legitimization. Inside theology it is employed for purposes of legitimization.
My quibble here is with the word “wants”. Genuine scepticism doesn’t “want” to demolish Christianity. It “wants” to understand truth, reason, valid argument. If that leads to the robbing Christianity of its legitimization in the eyes of the sceptic then so be it. My scepticism did not begin with a desire to lose my faith. Losing my faith was something of a traumatic and very unwanted experience as a result of my growing scepticism.
Nor would I see scepticism as being “true” or consistent scepticism if it has a “purpose” to justify any faith.
For example, people say: since we only have sources about Jesus which are coloured by faith, an approach to Jesus governed by faith is the only legitimate one; the only alternative is unbelief.
Quiet historical work should rule out such pressure imposed by a single alternative–for the sake of the freedom to be able to come to terms critically with Jesus without having to legitimate one’s faith or unbelief by the results of scholarship.
The author(s) appears to me to here declare a Jesus-centred approach to life and study. That is fine and I respect one’s right to have that approach. It is good to declare one’s position openly as I declare mine openly.
I would suggest that the true sceptic will not approach the question of Christian origins with any committed presuppositions about Jesus at all. If the evidence we have is most economically and validly explained by the work of a historical Jesus then that’s great: I’d feel I have understood and learned something from the evidence that has led me to that view. I think one mythicist, George Albert Wells, came to a view a little like that. Another person of faith, Thomas Brodie, did not seek to legitimize his faith in Jesus through his scholarly scepticism and felt obliged to reframe his view of Jesus without abandoning his Christian devotion. Another scholar, Thomas L. Thompson, has been led by his scholarly scepticism not to deny a historical Jesus at the foundation of the Christian religion but to declare that the evidence does not allow us to know anything of such a person. I think that view is not all that uncommon among critical scholars.
With good will and sincerity on both sides I don’t see why the discussion need be an antagonistic one.