Has Christianity ever needed a historical Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

I saw this sign hanging in front of a small town church today and those responsible for it might be proud to know that it prompted me to delve into some deep thoughts over what it’s all about.

Is not that sign what the gospel is all about? Is it not about effecting a new life in believers, having believers die to their “old” selves and being raised “with Christ” living in them?

Is not this as mythical a Christ as anyone can imagine? Or if one does not like that “m” word, as “spiritual” a Christ as can be imagined?

Isn’t that what Paul preached about? Galatians 2:20 And his message had power to transform himself and his fellow believers without any need to such a Christ to have died and been raised again “in the flesh”. Would not Paul even think that one who has begun in the spirit would be going backwards by believing in the flesh — or in a Jesus who did all this in his own flesh and body? Galatians 3:3

When Albert Schweitzer called for a Christianity grounded on “a metaphysic” and not on a historical event, I wonder if this is close to the sort of Christianity he had in mind.

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8 thoughts on “Has Christianity ever needed a historical Jesus?”

  1. It depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “historical.” For the longest time, history was the Bible. For most of humankind’s existence, received truth was the only truth. The idea that knowledge should be deduced from mathematics and the scientific method or that objective history could be recovered via the historical method rather than received from a divine revealer is rather new and still controversial in some parts of the world.

    In the Zondervan KJV Bible that I owned as a kid, there were pictures of a smiling, blue-eyed Jesus with wavy brown hair. One of my Roman Catholic friends called this sort of representation “Jesus Christ the Cool.” But that tall, European Jesus who walked about the “Holy Land,” held children on his knee, and spoke perfect Elizabethan English still is the historical Jesus for millions of Christians.

    The historical Christ they don’t need or even begin to understand is the one that’s derived from the historical method. First of all, he’s redundant. They’ve already got one. Second, he doesn’t match the Jesus in their Bibles, so it can’t be right. Finally, to them the entire premise is based on the idea that “somebody lied.” But they know it’s all true, so the whole thing is a nonstarter.

    I can actually understand this position. I don’t believe in it anymore, but at least they’re consistent. I’m reminded of the debate between John Dominic Crossan and William Lane Craig, hosted by the late William F. Buckley. Debate is decidedly not Crossan’s forte, and at times it isn’t even clear what point he’s trying to make. When Buckley finally asked Crossan, “Why are you here?” I had to admit I was wondering the same thing.

    If you can stomach the quacking, self-satisfied Craig and the prissy, studied stammer of Buckley, give it a listen to:


  2. Neil, interpreting Paul as referencing psychological rebirth, ie old sinful self put aside and the new man is born, is a possibility. But perhaps Paul is more multi-layered than just that. The spiritual/theological layer, possibly the manner Paul was interpreted in earlier days (sub-lunar realms notwithstanding….) does suggest a purely intellectual context can also be entertained. Obviously, today, that sort of ‘heavenly’ interpretation no longer holds water – for atheists anyway! Another layer, a purely intellectual layer, is that of ideas. Intellectual evolution in which old ideas are ‘crucified’ and new ideas are born, albeit with some connection to earlier ideas. This layer, to my mind, makes some sense in connection with Paul’s talk re 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. The ‘second coming’ and ‘rapture’ ideas. It’s ideas that make the intellectual world we live in – and so the ‘battle’ is between ideas. New ideas having to fight their way into our intellectual world. Heresy being no more welcome today as at any time in our intellectual history. The ‘end of the world’ (with apologies to those awaiting big things today….)is purely the end and the beginning of new intellectual worlds……

    As to your blog post re has Christianity ever needed a historical Jesus: Neil, there are two ways to answer that. 1) history did matter to those early Christians otherwise they had no need to write the gospel story. 2) a psychological, philosophical or spiritual interpretation of Paul does not negate the necessity for a historical core, a historical underpinning to the developing Christian thinking. Why? Because our intellectual capacity, our mind, is only a part of who we are as human beings. We are also flesh and blood. In other words, our physical existence, our physical environment, our history, matters. Yes, Christianity, with Paul, has placed a great emphasis upon our spiritual/intellectual capacity – but it also, in the gospel JC story, tells a story about a JC character who walked the sands of Palestine. In other words – Christianity was adamant that it wanted it’s feet, it’s roots, to rest firmly within physical reality. Christianity was not going to go the road of pure mysticism. That figure on the cross – however bizarre it is when interpreted as an atonement sacrifice – has rooted Christianity to a time and place in history. Something that would be completely unnecessary if all Christianity was interested in was psychological, philosophical or spiritual/heavenly concerns. Sure, the gospel JC story is pseudo-history, a literary creation set within a historical context. Put the literary JC character aside – and one still has to deal with history. Pseudo-history is, in this case, because of it’s attempts to bring prophecy into the story, more accurately a prophetic interpretation of history – a very old and very Jewish phenomenon. And if this is so, which I think it is………………..then we do have to consider Jewish history of the relevant time period; the late Hasmonean and the Herodian time periods.

    If it were possible, Josephus notwithstanding, to gain an accurate historical picture of those relevant years, then it would be easier to compare the gospel story with that history. Not, of course, as an accurate photograph but as a reflection, an interpretation, a ‘salvation interpretation, of that history. Which is probably why Josephus has made a dogs dinner out of that historical time period. Yes I know, I’m forever going on about Josephus – but is there really another way to search for the historical underpinnings of early Christian origins? The gospel interpretation of those years continues to provide scope for interpretation upon interpretation. Never-ending. What’s needed is not just the social environment, the way people lived etc, of those long ago days – it’s the political, Jewish political, interests that are relevant – as such things always are! Not carpenters from wherever – but power players……

  3. Christianity had all flavors to chose from including the mystic. By accident the historical flavor won. Did the orthodox flavor that won create a historical base or was the historical base there all alone is an unknown. IMHO the orthodox was able to take advantage of a political situation because of organization and that organization was able to marshal resources that made it attractive to Constantine. My question is did having a history help the organization.

    Christianity had the power of the state to support it for much of history and there was no need to see if its history had some tangible reality. Even now, few any Christians are Christians because of tangible history.

    I don’t understand why a metaphysic Christianity is fundamentally different from one with a mythical history. To be a Christian, you have to suspend belief in a purely natural world in some aspect so history is just a part of that. Christians are Christians for social and family history reasons more than any other reason. Once those ties break, Christianity has difficulty recovering.

    A purely mystical Christianity has been tried 2000 some odd years ago and did not survive. Over the past 150 some odd years Pentecostal and Charismatic have sprung up and are perhaps represent the mystical flavor best of all, but lack in organization. Purely mystical aka spiritual Christianity has no real organization but seems to be the fast growing.

    IMHO organization not mysticism or history is the key for Christianity to survive. History may be needed for the organization or may be an accident of survival.
    Paul’s brand of Christianity with no real organization did not survive.

    The challenge is to find an organization that can be mystic and survive.

    1. “Paul’s brand of Christianity with no real organization did not survive.”

      No, the problem is Paul’s Christianity DID survive. Our picture of the “historical Jesus” in the gospels is largely infused with mystical ideas from Paul. The true historical Jesus taught by Peter, James, and John is lost to history precisely because Paul won and the historical Jesus was mythologized in accordance with Paul’s theology.

  4. The problem with Christianity is the melding of the historical Jesus with the mythical.

    Jewish Christianity had a historical Jesus would banned animal sacrifices and taught morality, and you were justified by works.

    Pauline Christianity had a mythical Jesus who was sacrificed for you so you could be justified by faith apart from works.

    When you merge these two you get an unholy incestuous monster. So, my vote is that everyone pick one. If you side with Paul on soteriology, then stick with a mythical Jesus. Only if you side with Jewish Christianity do you get to have a historical Jesus–PERIOD.

    1. This is after all the disagreement between Paul on the one side and Peter, James, and John on the other in Galatians. They knew Jesus and the morality he taught and how he taught justification by works, so they opposed Paul. Paul had simply made up his own mythical Jesus who didn’t care about morality and who justified by faith apart from works, so he opposed them. In the end, Paul won, so we will never get a completely clear picture of the historical Jesus nor about what Peter, James, and John taught about him. However, it is clear that there was a historical Jesus. Christianity (in the sense of what we call Christianity today) was not based on the historical Jesus, however, since it comes from Paul.

  5. I don’t know. You maybe could have worded the OP a little lighter but the subject is a good one, which Christians don’t get challenged on nearly enough IMO. The history of Christianity and especially the supposed resurrection can be interesting if looked at objectively, from an historical and evidential point of view.

    On atheist sites we love it when theists come along to test us, so long as they discuss and don’t preach. Maybe it’s different here?

    1. Unfortunately Christians who have come to this site to “discuss” have too often (not always) come in sheep’s clothing pretending to be interested in serious discussion but before too long they show their true colours and begin to preach. (We used to call it smart PR tactics in the church I once belonged to.) I do respect those few who have not slipped into preaching.

      I’m not particularly interested in challenging Christians, however — Maybe I should be a lot more interested in challenging them than I am. But there are plenty of others doing that sort of thing and I don’t think I’d add much to their efforts.

      What prompted this post was the realization of the irony of people being upset over the very idea that Jesus was not a historical person when the faith of many is directed elsewhere. Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to spiritualize a coming to earth as an event that really happened in heaven without any harm to their faith. Many modern Jews can get by without a literal Abraham. So . . . ?

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