Modernism and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (2)

By Daniel H. King

Did Jesus Really Live?

The tenor of scholarship has changed since the period of the “Christ-myth” scholars and it is probable that there is not to be found a single writer who would argue that Jesus was only a fiction and the figment of the disciple’s imagination. Yet, in this fact do we not find illustrated the fickeled nature of the learned theorist? He is always looking for something new and different- and he will find it even if he must invent it. His mortal enemy is the theorist or scholar of the last and preceding generations. As long as their theories are in the spotlight his are not. So he must undermine theirs and establish his own. So it is and so it must ever be with those who make human learning their idol and reverence it as their god.

Now, to begin with, the view of the French writers and Bruno Bauer who classed Christianity among the mythical religions should never have been expressed. Is it not true that from the very beginning the church had bitter enemies, shrewd and powerful, who sought every available weapon of attack? Had there been factual basis for the supposition that this Christ the Christians worshiped was an invented fable, would not they have used it? Yet, so far as is known, no one thought of such a possibility until close to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Had Jesus not really lived, none would have known it better than the Jews, and, had it been possible, they surely would have raised that issue. On the contrary, all Jewish attacks on Jesus take for granted his life and death in Palestine. Says the Talmud: “On the eve of the Passover Jesus of Nazareth was hung. During 40 days a herald went before him crying aloud: `He ought to be stoned because he has practiced magic, has led Israel astray and caused them to rise in rebellion. Let him who has something to say in his defense come forward and declare it.’ But no one came forward, and he was hung on the eve of Passover” (Sanhedrin, 43a).

Later Jewish writings make many claims against him. They say: he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantheras (a word play on the Greek word for virgin, Parthenos); his mother’s name was Mary, and she was a dresser of women’s hair; he was a “revolutionary” and he “scoffed at the words of the wise”; he worked miracles by means of magic brought out of Egypt; he had devoted disciples who healed diseases in his name; he was a heretic who sinned and caused the multitude to sin, and he “led astray and deceived Israel”; he was about 33 when he was put to death; and he was executed on the eve of Passover. But they never said he did not exist!

As Neil poignantly argued in an essay in the Expository Times:

“The Christ-myth theory foundered on the rocks of hard facts. No serious historian-Christian or non-Christian-would subscribe to the theory that Jesus never existed. The evidence is conclusive on any reasonable view that a man called Jesus lived in Palestine 2000 years ago, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. This much is not a matter of dispute.”

The evidence from Josephus (Antiguties 18:3, 3 and 20:9, 1), Tacitus (Annals, XV 44). Pliny’s letter to Trajan, and Suetonius (Life of Claudius 25), have not even been considered here for sake of brevity.

Did the Church Create the Jesus of the Gospels?

Extreme Form-critics say the early church created the major features of Jesus life and teaching as portrayed in the Gospels. This meets with the problem that communities, as such are not thus creative-not in music, art, philosophy, science, morals or religion. Communities can furnish favorable conditions for creativity, can help at the start and radically modify the result afterwards, but it takes creative personalities to account, in all such realms, for the unique, original discoveries. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was largely lost sight of for a century, and then gathered around it an enthusiastic following of those who hailed Bach as the prince of musicians. It would be preposterous, though, to suppose that the community of his followers created the music, and that Bach was only an imaginary mouthpiece through which the group spoke. Nothing like the originality of Bach’s music or Jesus’ unique contribution to ethical and religious life and thought is ever explicable without creative personality.

Another obstacle to the view of the Form-critical school of thought has to do with the nature of the community which is supposed to have produced this distorted picture of their Lord. It must be remembered that disciples of Christ were people dedicated to the propagation of truth. No aspect of their lives individually or corporately lived was to reflect dishonesty or guile. A simple perusal of an analytical concordance will reveal this fact. Their intention is everywhere consistent with the thought reflected in the preface of Luke the historian, “it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee . . .” (Luke 1:3). And it must not be forgotten that most of these men sealed their writings with their own blood. Not a single one renounced the things that he had recorded. To a man they left this world convinced that they would meet their resurrected and glorified Lord on the other side of death! So impressed am I and a host of others (even in the twentieth century!) with their testimony and their faith that we share it and have the same conviction.

Are the Gospels Accurate Accounts?

Five points need to be considered in connection with the arguments which have been leveled against the accuracy of the Gospels and the writers who produced them:

1. It is assumed that the memories of the writers were no better than those of present-day scholars and, therefore, would have been prone to forget exact details and enlarge the happenings in a legendary and even mythical way. However, two facts militate against this presupposition. First, oriental memories-especially those of trained teachers-are incomparably more retentive than our own. Second, we must recall that their memories were not left unaided in recollecting the events of Jesus’ life and the words from his mouth. Their mental capabilities were quickened by the Divine Spirit: “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you” (Jn. 14:26).

2. Again, the assumption of the Higher Critic is that as time passed the accounts grew and so did the portrait of Jesus such that in point of fact the Jesus that was preached (the Kerygmatic Christ) bore very little resemblance to the Jesus who actually lived (the Jesus of history). But this assumes that a great amount of time had elapsed before the writing of the Gospels, and that is an assumption which the facts do not allow. The first Gospel was written when there were still plenty of people alive who were contemporary with Jesus and could have easily exposed it as a fraud if it had not been true.

3. When we compare our four Gospels with the fantastic legendary excesses of the lives of Jesus that came to be written in the second century we can be confident that the picture given us is reliable and historically accurate. He knows hunger, weariness, pain, disappointment, etc.-and we would not expect any of these in a legendary account.

4. There is also the matter of the internal features of the accounts which appear the more striking in the light of current scholarly opinion. H. B. Swete in his essay, “The Trustworthiness of the Gospel Narrative” which appeared in Critical Questions (London, 1906), said it so admirably that we will simply quote him here:

“Can the Gospels be equally trusted when they draw the picture of their central character? Is the Christ, as they portray Him, an historic person, or is he the creation of the Evangelists or of their Apostolic predecessors? . . . Such a view . . . will not bear close examination with the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Christ calls Himself the Son of man, a name which is but once given to Him by His followers. He reveals His messiahship only by degrees, and not publicly until just before the end. He lives with the twelve on terms of intimacy; Peter even once ventures to rebuke Him. His transfiguration is the one occasion on which His superhuman glory is revealed, and the three witnesses are forbidden to speak of it during His lifetime. He is “meek and lowly in heart”; He is at home with poor folk and little children; He sends the rich empty away. Adoration is rarely offered to Him; He does not even accept the title “Good Master”, without protesting against a possible misapprehension. This is not such a conception of Christ as could have originated in the Apostolic Age. Still less was it suggested by Jewish expectations; a Messiah who refused a crown, who lived the life of an itinerant teacher, who suffered the death of the cross, was not such a Messiah as any Jew of that time looked for or desired. Whence, then, came the picture of the Christ which the three Synoptic Gospels consistently offer? I can see no escape from the conclusion that it was drawn from life. The Central Figure of the Gospel Story, no less than the surroundings, bears the stamp of truth” (pp. 51-52).

5. Our last bit of evidence has to do with the discipline of archaeology. This relatively new science has had a remarkable effect upon the study of both biblical testaments. Assuredly the greater boon has been in the area of Old Testament and its Ancient Near Eastern background. But New Testament and Gospel research have also benefitted therefrom. F. F. Bruce has summarized its contribution thusly:

“New Testament archaeology . . . has enabled us . . . to identify a large number of sites mentioned by the apostles and evangelists. At times it has succeeded in pinpointing the location of an ancient city whose name and whereabouts had long since disappeared from popular memory. At other times a tomb, a monument, or the foundations of a building have come to light and helped us to understand better some New Testament incident associated with the place in question” (“Archaeological Confirmation of the N. T.,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. by Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), p. 320).

Simply put, archaeology has placed the Gospels squarely in the arena of history, giving much greater credence to the accounts themselves than to those who have attacked them over the past century.


Our conclusion is a very simple one. Perhaps some will consider it infantile, but it is nevertheless true. The “Quest of the Historical Jesus” is a search which never should have begun. It was illegitimate from the outset. The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith have always been one and the same. The accounts given to us by the Gospels are historical in nature. That does not imply that they are impartial accounts. They do not even try to be impartial. But that does not mean they are inaccurate. They record what happened not for its own sake, but because they saw the hand of God at work. To their writers Jesus was a unique Person who came on to the stage of history by the direct intervention of God and in the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Could men who thought in this way be expected to write a prosaic matter-of-fact record of the events? Of course not! But it is one thing to say this and another to claim that the Gospels are simply what the writers thought about Jesus and not what Jesus actually did and said.

Moreover, it is good to see some scholars beginning to move in this direction as well. 1. Howard Marshall closes his recent study with the following paragraph:

“I believe in the historical Jesus. I believe that historical study confirms that he lived and ministered and taught in a way that is substantially reproduced in the Gospels. I believe that this Jesus gave his life as a ransom for sinful mankind, and that he rose from the dead and is the living Lord. And in view of these facts I trust in him and commit my life to him” (l Believe in the Historical Jesus(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1977), p. 246).

We shall hope to hear more of the same from other writers of repute in the years ahead. Surely the pendulum has swung as far as it will in the other direction!

Truth Magazine XXII: 41, pp. 660-662
October 19, 1978