Ancient History, Church, History, Theology

Theories as Facts

Among students of the Scriptures, it is often hard to discern the theories from the facts. Someone in one generation develops an idea, and the next generation – who learned the idea in their college classrooms – teaches it as fact.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than the theory of the “historical Jesus” which fuels so many of the articles about Jesus that appear every year in mainstream magazines around the time of Easter. The same theory fuels almost every History Channel and PBS documentary about Jesus as well.

But the theory – which briefly states the that Jesus of history is very different from the Jesus of the Bible – is just that, a theory. It is a theory first clearly and plainly articulated around 1900, although it had been discussed at great length by German theologians at the close of the previous century. Two works – Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, first published in English in 1910; and Albert Kalthoff’s The Rise of Christianity (1907) – made the idea somewhat mainstream. Both owed an enormous debt to an earlier book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examinedwritten in 1846 by David Friedrich Strauss.

The themes were taken up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and then became a part of pop culture with the formation of the Jesus Seminar in 1985. Almost all of the mainstream authorities on the “historical Jesus” – Robert Bonk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg – first gained notice outside of academia because of it. Infamously, in the Seminar, members voted on the historicity of Jesus’ sayings by putting colored beads in a bowl – red meaning Jesus said it, black meaning he did not, and a range of colors between indicating various probabilities.

Although opposed by some of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century – Karl Bath and Rudolf Bultmann both opposed it – the idea has gained traction in popular culture and is taken as a given by almost everyone, including Christians. People just assume that the gospels present Jesus differently than he actually was in life.

But the theory hangs on the slender threads of assumptions. The assumptions are simple ones:

  • Jesus was illiterate because he came from Nazareth and therefore would not have
  • Jesus was poor because he came from Galilee and therefore resented the rule of the Romans

These two notions should bother the student of history. They are the Marxists ideals. Jesus is a poor, illiterate carpenter who rises up against his bourgeoisie Roman masters and is crushed for trying to lead a rebellion. They are not representative of first century Palestine, but they are representative of an ideal that existed in Europe at the time that the historical Jesus quest took root.

Everything about Jesus’ teachings is rephrased into a class struggle, and because it was convenient to the struggle of the day, people followed it. It should not surprise us that it gained popularity again in the 1960’s when Marxist ideals – repackaged as communal living and the oppression of “the Man” – became an academic norm again.

My purpose in all of this is not to critique the Jesus Seminar. I have done that elsewhere. It simply illustrates the weakness of the theory, which unfortunately is taught in even some of the most conservative colleges and churches.

For example, almost everyone who attends a basic Bible study or New Testament Survey class is told that Mark was the first gospel written. But why is this taught?

Because the historical Jesus people say so. Mark has the fewest miracles, reports events in the tersest terms; and since Matthew and Luke contain many of the same events, it became popular to conclude that it was the first gospel written.

This, of course, moves the core of the gospel out a generation from the life of Jesus and it makes Matthew and Luke derivative works.

In historical fact, however, most of the Church Fathers believed that Matthew was the first gospel written. It is 1) the most Jewish of the gospels and 2) reflects very little of later events. This is why Matthew appears first in the canon lists, and in your own Bible if you have one.

The argument that Mark was written first was created to justify dissecting the others, eliminating the miracles and the divinity of Christ. The Jesus Seminar people then decided that Mark was actually a composite of an imagined work called Q (from the German for source) and the Gospel of Thomas. They extrapolate Q from Mark by simply removing anything miraculous, supernatural or divine.

The theory, and it is was nothing more than that, became presented as fact and now, virtually everyone in Western Christianity adheres to it when in fact the Church has not adhered to that position for nearly 2,000 years.

All of this is just an illustration.

When something is presented to you as if it is facts, ask where the facts come from. Assume nothing. Alone, we won’t always catch everything; but as a community, we watch each other’s backs. We keep each other straight.

Don’t be afraid to question things, especially when those things are presented as undeniable fact without substantiation.

4 thoughts on “Theories as Facts”

  1. So guys like Bart Ehrman are Marxists who want to eliminate the miracles and divinity of Christ? Talk about a theory… 🙂

    Please point me to where the Jesus Seminar or scholars who believe that Mark was the gospel the others were taken from, state they are Marxist or that their objective is to deny/dismiss the divinity of Christ or the miracles he performed. ( especially since these are faith claims)

    Granted, we may infer such things from their books but inferences can lead us astray.

    I fully agree that we should question everything.

    No “desire” to debate over these issues. As you well know the debate over these issues is “endless.” We all decide “which” scholars we are going to believe. Me? I am a Ehrmanite. 🙂

    1. Hi Bruce, thanks for stopping in.

      I don’t believe I said Ehrman is a Marxist. For all I know, he’s a Reagan Republican. 🙂 Ehrman is one of my favorite heretics. I enjoy reading his books, even though I disagree with his conclusions.

      I could have used the same theory vs. fact argument for any of a dozen things in academics. I just picked one close to my heart.

  2. Consider me a beginner in these matters, but how do recent views of Jesus stand on whether or not he was a criminal. There appears to be reason to think Blasphemy was a grave morals crime, the kind of thing that would turn the public against a leader and scatter his shamed followers.

    If Jesus went to Calvary as a defeated leader, Christianity can emerge from among his followers. If he went there as a disgraced man, it can’t. Is there a consensus among students about the public’s attitude toward Jesus as he went to the cross?


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