Investigating Jesus – An Historian’s Quest

I was never a great fan of history. Stuff done in the past. Dust and cobwebs. Rote learning names, dates, events and details. It all seemed so boring and irrelevant. I had to study some history at school, but from the moment I could choose my subjects I left it behind. History was history as far as I was concerned!

Of course, this attitude is pretty naive. History helps explain who we are, where we’ve come from, what’s influenced us, what things matter and what don’t. Every time we watch the news or read the paper we’re studying history. When we flick through our family albums or read over our diaries we’re reflecting on our own history. What I didn’t appreciate for sometime was that whenever I opened my Bible I was engaging with history. I was reading of people and events in the past that were shaping my life in the present. How reliable was that history? Could it be trusted? Was it something I could stake my life on? These are important questions for those of us who want to consider, or reconsider, the basis of our beliefs.

I’ve just finished reading Investigating Jesus – An Historian’s Quest by John Dickson. Firstly, let me say it’s a beautiful book! Hardback, stitch bound, colour photos of archeological sites and ancient papyri, laced with wonderful paintings and works of art, helpful diagrams, pithy quotes … and it’s well written!

More significantly, this book is entirely about history. It’s about how historians do their job. It’s not a theological book. It’s not religious propaganda aiming to persuade people to become Christians. Investigating Jesus offers a good introduction to anyone wanting to learn the tools and strategies available to historians, and it demonstrates how they’ve been applied in examining the evidence regarding Jesus.

John focuses the bulk of this book on examining the various sources that provide historical data about Jesus. He considers the Gnostic Gospels, that came to fame in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, and shows both their value and limitations in gaining information on Jesus. He examines various non-Christian sources, from the first and second centuries, that make reference to Jesus and he argues that it’s important not to exaggerate or underestimate the value of these sources. In fact, without any reference to the Bible, the evidence from these sources leads all reputable historians to agree that a Jewish teacher named Jesus really did live and die in the first part of the first century AD.  (p84)

The New Testament provides the bulk of the information we have about Jesus. It’s common for people to dismiss this evidence as one source that’s biased and therefore unreliable. However, the New Testament is a collection of many sources, not just one. And the biases of the authors doesn’t mean that they’re therefore fabricating evidence. Historians are used to handling documents with obvious biases and they’ve developed a number of tests to evaluate the reliability of their evidence. These include:

  • The criterion of dissimilarity
  • The criterion of date
  • The criterion of multiple attestation
  • The criterion of embarrassment
  • The criterion of coherence
  • The criterion of historical plausibility
  • The criterion of archaic language
  • The criterion of memorability

These criterion are explained and illustrated in this book to show how they can be applied to the various accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. We are continually reminded that these are common tools of the trade for historians. These are the normal processes that historians, be they atheist, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, apply to weighing the evidence before them.

Archeology is also considered alongside these criterion. In recent years there have been some very important archeological discoveries that have given insight into the world of the New Testament. Some incidental details in the Gospels have been confirmed and some previously held theories about Jesus have been overturned.

The concluding chapter of this book considers the difference between probability and proof. The discipline of history deals in degrees of probability rather than repeatable scientific proofs. This doesn’t mean that history only offers second class knowledge. In fact, there are strong similarities with our legal system that gains knowledge by weighing up the evidence. Historical (and legal) proof is really probability beyond reasonable doubt. 

Examining all the sources that refer to Jesus, both outside and inside the New Testament, and applying the aforementioned criterion for testing these sources, leads historians of all persuasions to agree on the following:

… while many doubts remain over the details, the core elements of Jesus’ life are in fact known … there is an overwhelming scholarly consensus today that a Galilean teacher and (reputed) healer named Jesus proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom, wined and dined with ‘sinners’, appointed a circle of twelve apostles, clashed with religious authorities, denounced the Jerusalem Temple and wound up dead on a Roman cross; shortly after which his first followers declared that they had seen him alive again, announced he was the long-awaited Messiah and sought to preserve and promote (first in oral form, then in writing) all that they could of their memorable master’s life. The sources and methods contemporary scholars use allow certainty on at least these elements of the ancient Gospel story. (p155)

If, like me, you’ve never been much into history, then Investigating Jesus is a great introduction. If you’ve never considered the reliability of the evidence for Jesus, then here’s a place to start. If you’re after an easy to read, well illustrated, clearly argued book on the historical bedrock of Christianity, then I recommend this one. In writing this, John Dickson set out to bridge the gap between popular perception and scholarly judgment about the figure of Jesus and in my humble opinion he does this well.

At the end of the day, this is a ‘second order’ book. It’s like an instruction manual that shows how something works and helps you to use it. Investigating Jesus is aimed at helping the reader to investigate Jesus. It’s not an alternative to investigating Jesus for yourself. Having read this book you’ll be better equipped to go back to the primary sources, read them over and over, and weigh up their implications. If you’ve never done this before, let me encourage you to get hold of a New Testament (and any of the other primary documents mentioned in this book) and discover all you can about Jesus.

4 thoughts on “Investigating Jesus – An Historian’s Quest”

  1. I love the bit at the beginning where he is discussing if academics in the history field consider Jesus to be a real historical figure…and one of the guys he spoke to said “you can quote me”….and he does.

  2. Maca, please rest assured that you are still in our prayers. Prayers for your energy, your health, your family, your spirits, your ministry, your faith in God. You are such a wonderful Godly example to all of us. God bless you.

  3. I come from Indonesia and this book has been translated to Indonesian language. I also have a master degree in Biblical and Theological Study from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, USA. I highly recommend this book ! Enough said.
    I hope someday John Dickson willing to meet Bart Ehrman in a debate on this subject since the latter have made claims (explicit and implicit) to the contrary to Dickson’s point of view on the basis of historian’s academic methodologies… see http://youtu.be/-Oh1S8g1gaQ

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