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Naturalism and the Historical Jesus

The quest for a “merely human” Jesus
The various radical views of Jesus now being advocated by certain scholars and propagated through the press are buttressed by a number of different historical arguments. Some argue, for example, that the evidence from the first century suggests that Jesus was not unique in his healing ministry. Or, it is frequently argued, evidence from a number of extra-canonical sources such as “Q,” the “Gospel of Thomas,” and “Secret Mark,” proves the real historical Jesus was simply a wise sage.

But behind all such particular historical arguments there lies an all important assumption that we need to critically investigate—for its not the kind of thing your newspaper is likely to tell you. At the very foundation of what is called “historical critical scholarship” is the assumption of naturalism.

“Naturalism” is the belief that everything in the world, including history, operates strictly by natural laws. As Crossan says in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, “…I think the laws of physics, whether in the 1st Century or today, have always been the same.” (1) And he means by this that they are never violated! Every event in history, therefore, can be explained by referring to natural causes and effects. In other words, the supernatural is ruled out as a possible “historical explanation” from the start.

This naturalistic presupposition permeates liberal New Testament scholarship, and, while liberal scholars may differ somewhat in the degree to which they hold to it (depending on how broadly or narrowly they define the “natural” world), its importance in determining the conclusions more radical scholars arrive at can hardly be overstated. If a person begins his or her research with the assumption that supernatural events never occur, then obviously the only Jesus he or she can possibly “discover” through their research is a non-supernatural Jesus, a Jesus, in other words, that is radically different than the Jesus portrayed in the Bible. Thus, the conclusion that the Bible’s portrait of a supernatural savior is inaccurate is assumed at the start!

Starting at the conclusion
What these liberal scholars in the media today are about, then, is not so much deciding on the basis of the evidence whether or not Jesus was who the Bible says he was. This, as I said, was decided at the outset. What they are rather about is figuring out how the (assumed) mythological portrait of Jesus in the Bible came into being. They need to somehow explain how an ordinary human being was transformed in the minds of his followers into the divine Son of God who supposedly made divine claims and did miracles and even rose from the dead.

This is not at all easy to explain, as we shall see. Indeed, I shall argue that it is virtually impossible. But the point that needs to be presently made is that the only reason these scholars need to work so hard to come up with an explanation in the first place is because they assume at the outset that the Gospel story cannot be true! Since they assume that such things as virgin births, divine healings, and people rising from the dead cannot happen, they have to explain why the early followers of Jesus thought they happened. The simple and straightforward explanation that the followers of Jesus thought these things happened because they in fact happened is not allowed to count as a valid “explanation.”

This is what these liberal New Testament scholars are all about. They seek to find a merely human Jesus behind the New Testament records, and then try to explain how this ordinary human got “supernaturalized” in the mind of his followers. But the all important question of whether or not the Gospel story is mythological in the first place is rarely seriously discussed. That matter was settled before the research ever got off the ground, and before their conclusions ever reached the news media.

The “quest” is really a “guess”
The assumption that divinely inspired miracles never occur, and thus that the supernatural Jesus of the Bible is not historical, creates an interesting dilemma for liberal New Testament scholars. They want their view of Jesus to be rooted in concrete historical evidence, on the one hand, and yet their naturalistic assumption leads them to distrust most of the evidence in the New Testament, on the other. And since we have very little other evidence to go on, this means that whatever view of Jesus these scholars arrive at, it’s necessarily going to be arrived at more in spite of what the New Testament says than because of what the New Testament says. And this means that whatever view of Jesus these scholars take, it’s going to have to be based more on guess work than it is on concrete data.

In some respects, this liberal scholarship has created a problem for itself that it cannot solve, except by guessing. In undermining so much of the only concrete data we have on Jesus with their naturalistic starting point, these scholars have shrouded the historical Jesus in a veil of impenetrable darkness. All of our earliest records of Jesus found in the Bible portray him as the miracle working Son of God, but this these scholars will not allow. So, the only business left to do is to guess at who is behind this veil of myth and guess at how this veil of myth got there in the first place. In other words, they create a problem for themselves and then guess at how to solve it.

This is the primary reason why there are so many differing opinions about who Jesus was among contemporary liberal New Testament scholars. Since there is so little concrete data left for these scholars to go on, the veritable smorgasbord of scholarly opinions about who Jesus was that now bombard us through the media is to be expected. Indeed, this lack of unanimity has always characterized liberal New Testament scholarship, for just this reason.

An overview of the “guessy” quest
One of the first scholars to embark upon “the quest for the historical Jesus” was Hermann Remeirus (1694–1768). Starting from a naturalistic presupposition, and therefore believing that the New Testament portrait of Jesus was largely unreliable, he conjectured that the person who lay behind the New Testament records was a political revolutionary. Shortly thereafter, a large number of “Jesus biographers,” starting from this same naturalistic starting point, would conjecture in various ways that the historical Jesus was a teacher of high morals and lofty ideals. His followers, however, perhaps got over-enthusiastic in piling accolades on him.

Others, such as Karl Venturini, would speculate that Jesus was an Essence involved in a complex messianic conspiracy. David Strauss, however, argued that the Gospels are too thoroughly mythological to ever penetrate behind them with certainty. Johanne Weiss and Albert Schweitzer would not be deterred, though, and penetrated through these myths to find a wild-eyed apocalyptic visionary whose outlook was too foreign to be understood by modern people.

More recently, various scholars have tried to portray the “real” Jesus as a preacher calling for authentic living (R. Bultmann), a Jewish zealot (S. Brandon), a fairly orthodox Jew (J. Klausner), a political radical (R. Eisler, J. Carmichael), an ingenious messianic pretender (H. Schofield), or as a total figment of peoples’ imagination (J. M. Robinson). And the guesses are by no means becoming less diverse at the present time. Indeed, it is worsening to the point where even Crossan confesses that “[h]istorical Jesus research is becoming something of a scholarly bad joke.” (2)

So, for example, there are an increasing number of scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack, who are now arguing that the historical Jesus was a Cynic philosopher. Others, such as John Kloppenborg and James Robinson, agree that Jesus was a wise sage, but not necessary that he was of a Cynic orientation. Ben Meyer and John Meier, however, argue that the historical Jesus was more of a Jewish reformer. But Susan Haskins thinks he was a feminist. Anthony Harvey, on the other hand, argues that he was a prophet-teacher, Richard Horsley that he was a radical social prophet, and E. P. Sanders sees him as an eschatological prophet (a prophet who preached the coming judgment of God). The list could easily go on.

All of these scholars have their own particular reasons for postulating the particular view of Jesus they postulate. And each has their own explanation for how the “merely human” Jesus they find got mythologically transformed into the Son of God we find in the Gospels. But the sheer variety of opinions we find throughout the quest for the historical Jesus is enough to tell us that their views are based more on guesswork than they are on concrete historical facts. Given the fact that they begin with the assumption that the supernatural Jesus that all the evidence points to cannot be the historical Jesus, this diversity is just what we should expect.

What is more, while each of these various theories have their particular strong points as well as their weak points, it is this naturalistic assumption that lies behind each of them that constitutes their main “selling point.” That is, the only reason their particular ways of explaining how the “merely human” Jesus got transformed into the supernatural Son of God are plausible is because they assume at the start that Jesus was not the supernatural Son of God that the Gospels say he was. For people who need to explain away the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus, these various theories are appealing. But for a person who does not share this presupposition, they are seen as extremely conjectural and quite unnecessary.

The problem of circularity
This overview of the smorgasbord of scholarly guesses also reveals just how circular the business of liberal New Testament scholarship can be. Scholars tend to find what they expect to find in their quest to “get behind” the New Testament data. In their attempts to “get behind” the New Testament view of Jesus, scholars must set up criteria for what will and will not “count” as evidence for the historical Jesus. But no one agrees what these criteria are! It is largely a subjective matter.

And so it is not surprising that these scholars end up with such a wide variety of views on Jesus. What they find is built into how they find him! Scholars today who think that Jesus was simply a wise sage, for example, argue that all of the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus (e.g. sayings that speak of the second coming) are “inauthentic”: they do not go back to the historical Jesus. Others, however, think such sayings do go back to the historical Jesus, and for this reason conclude that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, not a wise sage. How can an issue like this be settled?

It can’t! Everything depends on what one at the start thinks Jesus is going to look like when they “discover” him “behind” the New Testament. Their expectations drive their criteria, and their criteria determine what they discover. And so, it is hardly surprising that some scholars “discover” a radical feminist, others a prophet, others a rabbi, others a magician, others a Cynic, and still others a political revolutionary. And all of this is ultimately the result of assuming at the start that the Gospel portrait of the Son of God who died and rose again cannot be true. If this isn’t true, it’s anyone’s guess as to what is.

A presumptuous assumption
The obvious question that you’ve got to be asking yourself through all of this is, why do these scholars assume that God could not have become incarnate in a human being and that divinely inspired miracles cannot occur? On what basis can they be so confident about what can and cannot happen in history? By what means have they come to know so much about God and the nature of the world that they can confidently pronounce, prior to any investigation of the evidence, that God has never intervened in the world!? Wouldn’t you have to be God himself to know this?

The most likely response to this line of questioning, one that is found in various ways throughout the history of the quest for the historical Jesus, is that the assumption of naturalism is simply part of our cultural world view. Since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the response goes, this has just been the way western intellectuals look at things. It’s what lies behind science. It’s what has fueled progress in western society. And, therefore, it’s what grounds our investigations into history. We simply assume that the natural regularity of the world we experience has been true for all time and in all places.

Thus, the response goes, when we read in some ancient documents (the Gospels) that a man rose from the grave after being dead for three days, for example, we all assume that there must be a naturalistic explanation for this. Perhaps the man hadn’t really died. Perhaps those who gave this report were lying. Or perhaps it’s all simply innocent legend. But, we assume, he didn’t actually come back to life, and the records that say he did are simply not historical, because that would violate the laws of nature!

Is Naturalism True?
There are two objections that can be raised against this response. First, even if we grant for the moment that our present western worldview is naturalistic, this doesn’t mean that naturalism is true. Worldviews are often wrong. Indeed, holding that naturalism is true itself requires seeing all other worldviews that allow for the supernatural as being wrong. So, the naturalistic worldview may be right, or it may be wrong.

Now if, as they claim, scholars are interested in truth, and not just in reiterating what they already believe, shouldn’t this mean that they should be open to the possibility of discovering things that actually challenge, and perhaps even overthrow, their own naturalistic worldview? Isn’t being open to the possibility of being wrong what academic scholarship is all about? And, therefore, should we not see the refusal to entertain the possibility of miracles as a presumptuous, very prejudiced, and quite unscholarly dogmatism?

The implication of all of this for historical research into who Jesus was is this: the matter should be settled on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of one’s own worldview assumptions. It means that we should be open to the possibility that the Gospels are telling us the truth, rather than simply working to come up with explanations for why they are not telling us the truth. It means that if the evidence suggests that Jesus actually made the divine claims and performed the divine feats that the Gospels attribute to him, we should be willing to accept this, however inconvenient it may be to our own worldview.

Is the Western Worldview Really Naturalistic?
A second objection to the above reply is that it does not seem that even the assumption that our western world view is thoroughly naturalistic is correct. While a host of intellectuals have been insisting on this for more than a century, the majority of people in western culture have continued to believe that miracles can occur. Certainly the majority of westerners today, Christians and non-Christians alike, have no problem believing in the supernatural.

Indeed, our culture is presently witnessing a veritable explosion of interest in (if not an obsession with) such things as miracles, angels, channeling, and other supernatural experiences, as any casual visit to the New Age section of your local book store will tell you. Whatever we make of this phenomenon, it is enough to prove that the naturalistic assumption that governs so much of liberal New Testament scholarship is not simply part of western culture. Indeed, it is increasingly out of sync with western culture.

Trying to make a naturalistic Jesus “relevant”
This observation also exposes the misguidedness of yet another aspect of the liberal New Testament enterprise. Since the time of Rudolf Bultmann with his famous attempt to “demythologize” the New Testament, many liberal scholars have been trying to make Jesus more “relevant” to modern people by “discovering” a non-supernatural Jesus behind the myth that modern people could believe in. Much of the present liberal agenda was about just this: finding a “new” Jesus that could be relevant to modern people. The assumption, of course, is that modern people can no longer, and should no longer, believe in a supernatural savior. It is a refrain we hear frequently from modern liberal scholars in the media.

Beside the point that there is little left of Jesus worth believing in once you’ve stripped him of all his supernatural features, and beside the point that we can only guess at who Jesus might be after we’ve stripped away the supernatural features of the New Testament, the endeavors of these liberal scholars, we now see, are completely unnecessary. They may have trouble finding relevance in a supernatural savior, but the majority of people do not. What is truly irrelevant to modern western people is the conjectural naturalized Jesus that is left over after the liberal scholars have undermined all of his supernatural features!

Hence, we may conclude that the naturalistic assumption that has driven the liberal New Testament enterprise for some two hundred years is as unnecessary as it presumptuous, and leads to views of Christ that are as circular as they are conjectural.



(1) J. D. Crossan, Chicago Tribune Magazine (July 17, 1994): 8.

(2) Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1991), xxvii.

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