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Is Christian Faith based on Real History?

December 11, 2010

It took me way more years than I like to admit to realize one simple thing about the origins of my Christian faith: That its attempt to demonstrate an historical foundation relies only on non-historical contentions.

The meticulous, thorough, brilliant historian, Donald H. Akenson, covers the historical development of the Bible (and the Talmuds… important to trace together). He, among many others, documents in careful detail, the few “facts” that can be reasonably asserted about Jesus and his earliest Jerusalem-based followers. The resurrection stories of the Gospels are not included, and for good reason. If you have not, do a comparative reading of those accounts in the four Gospels and see if you can summarize a consistent statement making sense of it all. There is no harmonizing some of the clear, definite differences, for just one problem.

Similar problems arise with the Virgin Birth and other supernatural aspects of Jesus’ birth story, with specifics of his trial and crucifixion, etc.

Theology and community-building (“social interest”) guided what was said in the Gospels, not supposed “eyewitness accounts.” Akenson is right that it is predetermined belief that causes Christians, from laity to conservative scholars, to assume historical reporting and evidences in the Gospel stories. It is not real history which leads people to faith, despite attempts by many to claim this. These people, as virtually everyone else, come to faith for a variety of other reasons, and THEN accept the Gospel writers’ attempt to fuse their theology to supposed events. And to a great extent, it seems the Gospels’ initial readers didn’t have our kind of concern to separate fictional story from historical fact… Paul himself wasn’t much concerned about what Jesus really had said or done, nor with his PHYSICAL resurrection.

What is YOUR story in regard to the way you thought at one time and now about this, whether there has been real change or not? Does history matter when it comes to what Christian faith is now? Can a non-history-based faith still be valid and have power in the case of Christianity?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2010 2:14 pm

    …it is predetermined belief that causes Christians, from laity to conservative scholars, to assume historical reporting and evidences in the Gospel stories.

    This is excellently phrased, whether your words or Akenson’s

    These people, as virtually everyone else, come to faith for a variety of other reasons, and THEN accept the Gospel writers’ attempt to fuse their theology to supposed events.

    That is just how I came to faith, and why I either believed or suspended judgement (and disbelief) about the gospel accounts for some time after.

    Can a non-historical Christianity have power? I think it is possible, but I think it seems like a *completely* different religion than one believing in some basic historicity of the gospel accounts.

    • naturalspirituality permalink
      December 11, 2010 6:02 pm

      Thanks for your input, “Atimetorend.” I really appreciate it, as a start in getting a substantial and probably lively discussion going on this and similar topics. I’ve just recently decided to do all I can in being more active with posting and encouraging interaction. I haven’t done a complete search, but think there is still a need for some information and discussions that other blogs on matters of faith, skepticism, etc. are not covering.

      And thanks for the compliment… it is actually my wording, but pretty close to something I just had read Akenson saying. For you, or anyone with patience for a long, detailed read, I think it is hard to beat his “Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds.” Though I’ve pursued biblical studies for decades, and more recently Christian origins in depth, I found a wealth of new perspectives, insights and literary/historical info on these topics here. I’d say at least peruse the book, and see IF you can put it down (I’ve been back to it 3 times, each reading just parts).

      Two questions: What’s behind “atimetorend” and what does it seek to express?

      And how does that “completely different religion” look to you? (I agree that it will be very different, and not yet been created, because even “liberals” have not really decided, in any major numbers, to treat the Gospel as basically non-historical; but yet take the Bible seriously and not just ignore everything that is puzzling or suspicious, keeping about 2% of it.)

  2. Daniel permalink
    December 14, 2010 9:38 pm

    We should stop trying to read the Bible in any modern historical sense. It was not out of style for ancient historians to pen speeches for famous people they never actually made. If it was within the character of the orator — no problem.

    In the New Testament, we are told that Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, death and resurrection have been interpreted “according to the Holy Writings.” What this implies is that the writers of the NT, particularly the Gospels, used the OT as a pallet from which to “paint” their portraits of Jesus, interpreting what his life meant to each of them. The historical items, his teaching, miracles, death and resurrection are simply taken for granted as facts. It’s what these mean that’s important.

    When we open the TN, we would do better not to regard it as a history constructed to satisfy our rationalistic needs. We are opening a art gallery, which appeals to our common subjective sensibilities, asking us: “What would we write of our experience of Jesus; what would be our Gospel?”

    • Howard Pepper permalink
      December 15, 2010 1:23 am


      Excellent observations and comments… thanks! I especially liked “opening an art gallery” re. opening the NT… hadn’t thought of that analogy.

      As to the original purpose and composition of the NT and the Gospels particularly (one of my special interests), certainly individual impressions and preferences went into. But there were specific social/religious needs and situations that also were critical! It’s fun to get some sense of what the early Jesus followers, especially around 70-100 CE, were experiencing and thinking. And it’s important! If we note carefully the differences between the Gospels, we get some sense of the different needs for different audiences… we get at least a few hints of how majorly disruptive was the loss of the temple and most of Jerusalem in 69 – 70, and the necessary creativity it unleashed. For some great attention to that, “Surpassing Wonder” by Akenson is great, as is “Who Wrote the New Testamet” by Mack, among several others.

      Curious… what is your own main motivation for reading and re-reading the NT and what do you get from it?

  3. December 16, 2010 6:27 am

    This is literally heresy

    • Howard Pepper permalink
      December 16, 2010 8:01 am

      I am quite aware that from an “orthodox” point of view, you are certainly right…. Thanks for the participation. And that is meant honestly, not sarcastically. Love to have you keep reading and responding.

      • December 16, 2010 9:01 pm

        From a “biblical” point of view it’s heresy. Paul warned of people like you.

        • Howard Pepper permalink
          December 17, 2010 4:56 am

          My long “biblical” background enables me to understand what you mean. But appealing to a “biblical point of view” really is a non-solution as it doesn’t specify who’s or what biblical interpretation (which, for anyone and everyone, is incredibly complex).

  4. Tito permalink
    December 17, 2010 4:33 am

    I’m reading “Scripting Jesus” by L. Michael White and I’m really enjoying it. He takes a scholarly approach to identifying the uniqueness of the writer(s) of each gospel and also does a great job of bringing out the culture and content of other writings of that period. This brings across the difference in treatment of the material and explains why we cannot afford to treat this as modern history and expect people in the 1st century to approach things like we do.

    The book focuses on the development of oral performance of stories which led to written “scripts” to queue reader/performers in small groups that likely grew into the gospels. He does a great job citing sources (40 pages of tiny print references!) and still keeps it approachable.

    I think the main thing is appreciating the culture, storytelling style, and uniqueness of the different books. Being raised in a southern baptist church I always approached the bible as god’s perfect word and that it was written by him so it should always be consistent. This caused my brain to harmonize or ignore different problems and create a “Jesus smoothie” blending of all the stories, loosing their many differences. It wasn’t until I stopped to look at the differences that I internalized the different styles, themes, and core content in the different gospel accounts.

    I think there is a clear legend development arc starting with Mark, the earliest and least miraculous, through to John the latest and most miraculous. It also continues right to later gospels that were not accepted as canon, but the trend is quite obviously there and part of human nature. (Dan Barker detailed this well here

    I think once a proper objective study of biblical origins and culture/context it is impossible to accept the stupendous claims of the NT. Add to that the total lack of evidence of the bible’s claims today (prayer fail, prophesy fail, evidential problem of evil, etc) and the doubt overcomes the incredible claims IMHO.

    • Howard Pepper permalink
      December 17, 2010 5:19 am

      Thanks for the tip on “Scripting Jesus.” I’ve not encountered it, but have read all and re-read most sections of White’s “From Jesus to Christianity,” probably an earlier work. I love his way of organizing and handling basically all of the NT and its development there, plus early Christianity. I’m very impressed with his research, as you are, and the fact that he is more historical than theological (as far as any evident presuppositions or preferences). I also love that he is interdisciplinary, a very important thing for effective biblical studies. Burton Mack is another big advocate of interdisciplinary work, and I love his material as well. Looking first and primarily from an historical point of view is rare but vital (as opposed to starting from theology, even for “liberals”), then pulling in data and insights from other disciplines as needed.

      I also appreciate and agree with the rest of your comments, Tito. What you say about making a “Jesus smoothie” (great metaphor!) is what virtually all of us who were long-time Evangelicals had done… being led there almost always by supposedly knowledgeable ministers and/or scholars. Bart Ehrman makes this point well, in some detail in one or more of his well-done books. The process, among other things, does disguise the development of the NT and the distinctive points and theologies that the writers were creating, often in narrative form.

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