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.

If I were God I’d make myself clearer

ClearerIf I were God I’d make myself clearer. That’s a big call! Way too big for me. But I can understand the sentiment. Why doesn’t God simply prove beyond all reasonable doubt that he exists? Once and for all. No questions. No ambiguities. No contradictory evidence. Just clear, obvious, proof.

I guess the obvious question is, what would such clarity look like? What would I consider persuasive? What would it take for you to be convinced of the existence of God? And then, which God are we talking about? There are so many religions, so many claims about God, how can we possibly know which is the right one, if any of them are?

In this little book, John Dickson takes us on a pathway through the maze of ideas about God. It’s been popular for years to argue that all beliefs are really different paths to the same end. This could be for a couple of reasons. Firstly, so much blood has been spilled through religious conflict, that there seems nothing to be gained by highlighting differences that could cause more conflict. Secondly, sorting out the differences takes research, time and effort, and not many people are prepared to do this. It’s easier to stay preoccupied with trivia.

John demonstrates that religious pluralism has obvious and fatal flaws. How can Hinduism and Buddhism possibly both be true expressions of reality. Hinduism has many gods, while classical Buddhism rejects the notion of any god. Christianity believes that people are saved by the mercy and grace of God, whereas Islam argues that people are saved through ethical and ritual obedience. Christianity claims that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfils the promises made to Israel, and yet Israel still awaits a Messiah. The Koran claims that Jesus was neither crucified or resurrected, while Christianity hangs everything on these events. A quick assessment of these claims highlights the bankruptcy of pluralism. It could be that none of these religions are true, but there is no way they can each be true.

This is a scary prospect in a world committed to tolerance. However, John offers us a better understanding of tolerance.

True tolerance, then, is not my willingness to accept the position of another, it is the more admirable ability to treat with respect a person with whom I deeply disagree. A tolerant Muslim, for instance, is not one who accepts as valid the Buddhist doctrine of ‘birth and rebirth’, it is one who, while rejecting such a teaching, is able to remain respectful and compassionate toward Buddhists themselves. Again, the tolerant Christian is not one who accepts as valid the Hindu claim that there are many gods, it is the one who, while denying polytheism, is able to treat Hindus with the honour due to them as fellow members of the human race. In each case there is an informed awareness of the contrary position of the other and a generous commitment to respect and value the person who holds that position.  (p38-39)

Such an understanding of tolerance opens the way through the maze of ideas. We can be intellectually rigorous and culturally sensitive in a way that overcomes bigotry and discrimination. We don’t have to paint over differences but can be freed to respectfully discuss, and argue, and explore and persuade one another.

This book argues that Christianity is to a large extent a ‘verifiable’ religion. This is not to say that it’s true, but that it’s founded upon public, historical, evidence. It makes claims that can be tested through historical, archeological, literary, and critical scrutiny. The implications of this are important. If none of the places, dates, names or events pertinent to Christianity could be attested anywhere else, there would be good grounds for being suspicious as to it’s truth claims. If it could be demonstrated that Jesus never lived, was not crucified, or did not rise from the dead, then Christianity could hardly be trusted as the way to God. As it is, Christianity makes some dangerously verifiable claims and invites people to check them out. No tricks or mirrors – just open investigation. This is a book that invites such scrutiny.

The heart of the evidence for Christianity lies in the documents of the New Testament, much of which were written shortly after the events they describe. Consider, for example, the following incident recorded in the Book of Acts. In AD 50 the city of Athens in ancient Greece was a melting pot of ideas. All kinds of claims were made about religion, and there were many ‘gods’ being promoted. Into this confusion, the Apostle Paul sought to bring some clarity by directing people to the evidence concerning Jesus. You can read what he said and the reaction it evoked…

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.  (Acts 17:22-34)

Some sneered, some followed, and others were keen to find out more. If you’d like to find out more, this little book by John Dickson will help point you in the right direction.

If I were God I’d end all the pain

PainIf I were God I’d end all the pain. That sounds pretty right. I’m not much of a fan of pain, especially my own! Currently, I’m sitting on my bed wearing ugg boots and a hoodie, bemoaning the cold weather, wondering if I’m well enough to venture out to watch the Brumbies play the Reds at Canberra Stadium tonight. Today’s temperature is supposed to range between 0 and 10 degrees. Subtract the wind chill and it will probably feel like minus a zillion at the ground. I must be sick or something, because until this year, I don’t think I’d missed a home game in a decade. Maybe I should ring up someone and see if I can sneak into a corporate box!

Yesterday it felt like sickness was getting the better of me. I ached all over and spent the afternoon and evening drifting in and out of sleep. I’ve probably just got another cold and a weakened immune system. But it’s not fun and it’s another reminder that things aren’t what they should be. For some dumb reason I checked the weather app on the phone at 10pm last night to discover it felt like -1.6 degrees in Canberra, while it was a balmy 25 degrees in Darwin. My heart sighed, I wished we were there, and once again wondered what on earth God was doing.

John Dickson’s little book, If I were God I’d end all the pain, is a helpful read for those who are looking for answers to the questions raised by suffering and pain. It’s not a detached philosophical book that fills the head and ignores the heart. John has experienced pain, first hand and from a young age, having lost his dad in plane crash when he was nine years old. He writes as one who understands the questions and who has explored many of the answers being offered.

Issues of faith and doubt loom large in the presence of suffering. Sometimes people attempt to use suffering as proof for the non-existence of God. It’s often expressed something like this:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God would be able to end suffering.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God would desire to end suffering.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  An all-powerful, all-loving God, therefore, does not exist.  (p15)

John offers an alternative proposition that he explores in this book:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God exists.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God exists.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  God must have loving reasons (which he is able to achieve) for permitting suffering.  (p16)

This is not offered as a proof for God. Nor does it solve the problem of suffering. It still leaves deep and emotional difficulties for the one who believes in God. Such as, Why does God allow this suffering? and What has he done about it? 

Before John gives a Christian explanation for the problem of suffering, he explores a number of other perspectives. He demonstrates how Islam understands suffering in a very different manner to Buddhism, and how Hinduism and Atheism are very different again. I won’t attempt to summarise these views because I don’t want to caricature them by reducing each to a few sentences. But it’s important to understand how different these world views are, against the popular claim that all religions are simply windows into the same truth. This suggestion shows serious ignorance and disrespect for each of these religions and world views.

The Bible’s perspective on suffering is that it’s okay to ask questions and raise doubts. In fact many of the biblical authors, especially the Psalm writers, do exactly that. Psalm 22 is offered as an important example:

1  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2  O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

John writes in response to the words of this Psalm:

If I were a Buddhist, this sort of questioning would indicate my unenlightenment; if I were a Muslim, it would border on blasphemy; if I were an atheist, or course, it would be meaningless. Actually, I suspect some church folk of today would feel uncomfortable repeating the sentiments of this psalm. Sometimes we in the church feel we must declare “The Lord is my shepherd” even if the Shepherd seems to have gone walk-about. But faith isn’t like that, at least biblical faith isn’t like that. Faith is not denial of reality, nor does it involve repeating a mantra to dispel the doubts. The presence of Psalm 22, in the Bible, right before Psalm 23, reminds us that we have God’s permission to express our disappointment.  (p34-35)

The Bible gives an explanation for the cause of human suffering and it lies in our decision to reject our Creator. From that moment onwards (somewhere near the beginning of human history) everything has been out of whack. Things have grown worse and worse with every assertion of our independence from God. I’m preaching on Genesis 4-9 tomorrow and I’ve been struck again at how quickly everything deteriorated. John writes of Genesis 3:6, So began the long and torturous story of the human will: men and women, made in God’s image, defying their Maker for an imagined personal gain. (p42)

Of course, many have asked why God doesn’t simply step in, over-rule our selfish decisions, and stop the pain we cause. If he has the power to do this, then what’s stopping him? The answer lies in God’s respect for human dignity. He has made us as real beings with real choice. We’re not puppets like Truman, in the movie, The Truman Show. God doesn’t play ‘dolls house’ with the world. We are real independent beings who can choose either to relate to God, or to reject God. God allows us to choose, and to live with our choices, but he won’t allow evil and suffering to continue forever. He’s set a time when he will call all injustice to account. It’s a testimony to God’s patience that he hasn’t done this yet. God is giving people time to turn back to him.

This book also highlights the biblical perspective that God hasn’t given up on this world. He promises an eternal future for all who put their confidence in Jesus Christ. Contrary to the popular notion of heaven, where people are seen as disembodied souls separated from physical existence, the Bible speaks of a new physical creation. We can look forward to an end to pain and suffering and the restoration of our bodies. This is a place where we continue to enjoy real physical sensory experience. We can look forward to a future that holds real hope for those currently suffering in pain.

John finishes his book with a profound perspective on suffering that’s unique to Christianity. In contrast to Islam, which sees God as the ‘Unmoved-Mover’, the Bible portrays God as sharing in our suffering as the ‘Deeply-Moved-Mover’. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, shares in this painful world, suffers deeply, and dies a torturous death by crucifixion. But the deeper significance in Jesus’ suffering is found in these words of Psalm 22, that Jesus makes his own:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why would Jesus cry out such a thing? This is God’s Son, in whom God is well pleased, so what’s happening? Jesus does far more than experience my physical or emotional suffering and pain. He takes my guilt and shame, enduring the judgment of God against all my selfishness and sin, so that I can receive God’s mercy. Totally undeserved, but generously offered. Here is real hope for all who suffer… if we will put our trust in Jesus.

Humilitas

It’s hard to know how to review John Dickson’s book, Humilitas. With humility I suppose, or at least without humiliating myself! It’s hard because I’m not much of an expert on the topic, and it’s doubly hard because the author is a good mate whom I greatly admire. I’ve always been stimulated through reading John’s books. I confess to having envied John’s capacity as a preacher, didgeridoo player, author, and general all round talent. But mostly I just like having the occasional catch up, coffee together, and being encouraged by an old friend.

Well, Humilitas is not what I expected! I’ve grown accustomed to John writing books on the life and teaching of Jesus, books that answer difficult questions, and books seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus. I quickly discovered that this is a different type of book, pitched at a different audience. This is not so much for the enquirer into Christianity, as the one who is seeking to grow as a leader and build stronger relationships with others. (Not to suggest these are mutually exclusive, by the way.) I’d expect to find this book sitting comfortably alongside books by Ken Blanchard or Max de Pree in the leadership section of your local bookshop… if there are any local bookshops still in existence!

I found Humilitas a good read and completed it in a couple of sittings. John is self-effacing as he writes, only too aware of the sitting duck he has become in presuming to teach on humility! He writes with grace and style, colouring his work with historical and contemporary examples of humble men and women. Indeed, I loved reading some of my favourite anecdotes from A Sneaking Suspicion now providing powerful illustrations of humility in action! But this is not a repackaged, ‘slap together’ paperback by a prolific author. It shows evidence of serious research over many years, much of it historical, laying a foundation for an academic and yet highly practical work. As I was reading this book, I also listened to James O’Loghlin interviewing John about the topic on ABC radio. It helped bring the book to life even more. You can listen to the interview online.

John writes of humilitas in the positive sense of humility, rather than its negative sense of humiliation. He provides his own working definition that he expounds throughout the book…

Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (p24)

Three thoughts are inherent in this definition of humility. Firstly, it presupposes your dignity. The humble person begins by being aware of their worth and abilities. Secondly, it is a choice. Otherwise it would simply be humiliation. And thirdly, it is social, as it’s shown in putting others before yourself.

John argues persuasively that humility is a necessary ingredient to truly successful leadership. He demonstrates that it’s common sense to cultivate humility in our personal and professional dealings with others. He highlights the aesthetics of humility, not as an ornament to be worn, but as an inner virtue that is attractive to others. The historian in John comes to the fore as he reveals how humility wasn’t always a prized virtue in the ancient world. In fact, self-congratulation and boasting (that would often be despised today) was much more common and accepted in the ancient world. However, something happened to change this perspective, such that humility is widely recognised as a beautiful and desirable virtue today.

John presents a strong case for the impact of Jesus changing people’s perspective on humility in the first century. Mind you, he argues as a historian, and not as a preacher, Christian apologist or evangelist. This is not to say that Christians have a monopoly on humility – they certainly don’t! He writes…

My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as result of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.

Put another way, while we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform, long after it stopped being Christian. (p112)

The latter chapters of the book reveal the some of the practical benefits of humility for life, love and leadership. I will simply refer to the chapter headings to highlight the trajectory of his arguments:

Chapter 7 – Growth: Why humility generates abilities.
Chapter 8 – Persuasion: How character determines influence.
Chapter 9 – Inspiration: How humility lifts those around us.
Chapter 10 – Harmony: Why humility is better than “tolerance”.
Chapter 11 – Steps: How it’s possible to become (more) humble.

I was anxious to dip into the final chapter and come away with some tips on becoming (more) humble! Something I need, I’m afraid to say – in fact, we probably all do. John leaves us with six thoughts to consider. Firstly, we are shaped by what we love. If humility doesn’t appeal, then we are hardly likely to become very humble. Secondly, reflect on the lives of the humble. Jesus, is undisputedly humble and reading the New Testament Gospels offers an excellent insight into humility in action. And, John mentions other more recent examples, people such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, along with some notorious counter-examples! Thirdly, John suggests conducting thought experiments to enhance humility. Perhaps, another way to put this is, is to exercise our empathy muscles, so as to consider how we will relate with others in advance. Fourthy, act humbly. This doesn’t mean we should pretend. Faking it would hardly count as humility! Rather, humility becomes easier and a more natural response the more we put it into practice. Fifthly, he suggests we invite criticism. It’s not easy, and we won’t do it naturally, but seeking feedback from people you respect and trust is very worthwhile. And sixthly, forget about being humble. He quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:

If anyone would like to acquire humility… the first step is to realise that one is proud. (p183)

I found myself wanting to add another thought to this list. Pray. God wants to transform us into the likeness of his son, Jesus. The Bible teaches that to become more and more like Jesus involves becoming increasingly humble. So I recommend we ask God to grow an attitude of humility within us. In fact, I must confess to often praying something like: Dear God, please make me more humble, but without humiliating me. A dangerous prayer, perhaps!

This is a helpful book. It’s not a religious book, and it should appeal to people of many walks of life, cultural contexts, and different philosophical and religious persuasions. It’s a book I would recommend or offer to others, especially those in positions of leadership. As a Christian it whet my appetite to learn more of what God says about humility. To look more closely at the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and what others have said about him, inside and outside the Bible (especially in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians). In fact, I would like to see a follow up or addendum to Humilitas. Perhaps John could produce a study guide, or discussion questions, or a specifically Christian booklet, that would take us deeper into the the Bible’s teaching on this important topic.