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What Have They Done with Jesus – Roundup

I have delayed the final post in my notes on Ben Witherington’s book What Have They Done with Jesus? for quite some time. In the meantime I have read Backham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [my review].

Bauckham provides a much more coherent account of the principles that it appears Witherington is using, partially because he writes for a somewhat more scholarly audience. His purpose is to lay out the nuts and bolts. As I read it, Witherington’s purpose is to use those principles to paint a portrait of Jesus. For an extended discussion of Bauckham, see my review above. In summary, however, while I believe there is some point to the method, I don’t think it accomplishes what Bauckham (or Witherington) think it does.

Frequently when I’m discussing the historical Jesus I suggest that the best antidote to any portrait painted by a scholar is to read another scholar. They tend to do a pretty good job of critiquing one another. In general, however, someone else can do the same to them in turn. This has resulted in a certain amount of agnosticism on my part regarding our ability to perceive the historical Jesus, and I also question the need for any level of precision.

Witherington is a good writer, and I confess to enjoying a great deal of this book even when I was disagreeing. He does not lay out the principles as clearly as does Bauckham, but that is not his purpose. There are elements of the book that I found very helpful, others not so convincing, and a few annoying.

What is most helpful in the book is the very thorough examination of the evidence that we have regarding very early figures in the church. Whether one agrees with conclusions or not, the information is quite good for a book aimed at non-scholars (though at educated non-scholars!). I found the two chapters on Paul and those on James most helpful in their combined look at the major divisions (factions? groups?) in early Christianity. I found those chapters generally sensible and balanced, probably meaning no more than that they suited my prejudices.

I do think that Witherington paints a more unified view of the early church than was most likely the case, and was more critical of those who date non-canonical gospels early than I would find justified. Nonetheless, most early dates for those gospels are unjustified in my view, and some serious critical examination is called for.

The “not so convincing” part is what appears to be the intent of the book–presenting a historically probable picture of Jesus. The subtitle suggests the goal: “BEYOND STRANGE THEORIES AND BAD HISTORY–WHY WE CAN TRUST THE BIBLE.” As a matter of history, I remain unconvinced. I trust the Bible with my faith, but I question historical details. For more details on this, find the links to earlier posts at the end of this one.

For what I find slightly annoying, let me simply quote a paragraph from the Appendix:

It is not a good historical principle to rule out causes of events in advance of examining the evidence, especially when none of us has an exhaustive knowledge of either historical or natural causation. The proverbial anti-supernatural bias is no more a good historical presupposition than the naive assumption some people make that everything requires a miraculous explanation, as when someone talks about a demon or spirit causing him to catch a cold, and so on. All data needs to be critically analyzed, of course, but no one should rule out the miraculous from the outset.

On its face this sounds so objective, but I believe it presents some grave difficulties. The first sentence reminds us that we do not know all natural causes. But that should suggest that we might hold out for a natural cause that we don’t know before we resort to a supernatural explanation. Witherington instead uses this excellent principle to suggest that we should be open to supernatural causes.

Now I believe that we should leave open the possibility of supernatural occurrences, as long as we do not possess exhaustive knowledge of the natural world. But at the same time miraculous causes simply can never be the most probable explanation for an event. If a miracle were probable, it would cease to be a miracle.

The assumption that no miracles are possible is not the equivalent of the reverse–the assumption that everything requires a miracle. We do know the causes of colds (Witherington’s example) and thus we know that no specific miracle is required. We know of many other things that are naturally caused (at least in a contingent sense, but that’s way beyond the scope of this post).

But even if I do not rule out the miraculous from the outset, it seems difficult to make it the most probable explanation. I recall a conversation of the virgin birth in which one of the participants was a OB-GYN specialist. He made an off-hand remark that in his office there were a couple of virgin conceptions reported each week. The point here is that out of these many reports even those of us who are believing Christians would reject every one out of hand–except one.

Would we suggest that the OB-GYN consider seriously the option of a miracle every time a pregnant young patient suggests she has never had sex? Probably not. But in one case we make an exception. And while I am willing as a matter of faith to make an exception, there is no way that I will claim that is either history or science. In fact, I see no merit in making such a claim.

I believe that Jesus rose from the dead (to move on to another big one!) not because I believe that missing bodies are best explained miraculously, but rather because my prior faith and spiritual experience inclines me to that belief. I don’t call this rational. I’d prefer it not be called irrational, but rather non-rational, but I understand that many who don’t share my faith won’t be that kind!

I think Witherington is doing much the same thing. I don’t think he would be as kind to claims of the miraculous in other ancient cultures. But in the case of Jesus, miracles get a higher probability rating.

Irrespective of any other factor, this one fact would mean that I would find it difficult to produce a picture of Jesus that was both historically probably as a whole, and also in accord with orthodox Christology. Face it, the idea of God in the form of a human is inherently improbable, extremely improbable, and the orthodox picture of Jesus simply doesn’t make sense unless one believes that picture is true even though it is improbable.

Thus from an historical perspective I remain skeptical, while at the same time remaining a believer. It is faith and the witness of the Holy Spirit, not any sort of historical reconstruction that convinces me. History convinces me that there is room for the physical events such miracles provide (the body of Jesus was not there, the disciples did indeed change their character as they might had they encountered the risen Jesus), but history cannot make the impossible probable.

Previous posts on What Have They Done with Jesus? in reverse order:

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