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Are Christian Beliefs Uniquely Grounded in History?

July 12, 2013

The idea of Christianity as unique (and “true”) because it alone, among religions, is grounded in historically verifiable events is still a common view.

I say “still” in that this belief has steadily lost ground over the last 2 1/2 centuries or so.

Why? Most everyone knows, in general terms, but more specifically, this: study of the Bible via the “historical critical” method, mainly in universities and seminaries.

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pi...

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pitsak, a Medieval Armenian scribe and miniaturist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now traditional Christians, to varying degrees discount findings from this approach because it was/is thought to be driven by extreme skepticism, “humanism,” or even atheism.  For the most part, this is wrong.  Most early humanists were Christians (despite a few notable exceptions).  Eighteenth and 19th century “historical-critical” scholars were almost all committed churchmen (virtually none were women until the 20th century).  A desire to understand the Bible in greater depth drove them.

Yes, they were indeed influenced by philosophy and emerging science; however, most philosophers and scientists in early historical-critical days were sincere Christians themselves.  And the major attention and loyalties of Bible scholars remained with the Church and the Bible as a spiritual guide.  The trend of over a century, by the late 1800s, alarmed enough church leaders that a reaction against “modernism” began… a concerted new effort to combat conclusions of biblical scholarship and a renewed push toward the long-held face-value-acceptance of biblical stories… as generally literal, factual vs. humanly religious and partaking as much of mythos as of history.     

So here’s the context for this blog post:

My own background for about 27 adult years was deeply in the just-described kind of defense of the Bible as historical, with key events (especially around Jesus) as verifiable.  My own ever-deeper study of the Bible and theology, and related subjects of science (esp. psychology, anthropology, history) eventually led me to a more nuanced, realistic view of it, with a concurrent inner relief (despite many positives of experience in my earlier faith) and spiritual maturing.  I now try to share some of my hard-gained insights with both Christians and non-Christians (the latter I don’t care to “convert” but to educate, as they often have hatreds and act uncivilly, driven by misinformation, just as many Christians operate on misinformation and flawed assumptions).  This desire and personal curiosity has me reading Christian blogs of widely varying types.  Sometimes I interact  and sometimes challenge (civilly, which I consider important).  The initial core of what follows is a slight modification (for this context) of a comment I made in reply to the basic contention I’ve described in the opening here: the unique historical basis of Christianity.

My slightly modified remarks:

As you said yourself, even if Christianity is unique in terms of basing itself largely on events claimed to be historical and able to be validated (according to orthodoxy), that does not make it “true” or valid.  I’m not being merely “postmodern” when I say that the truth of Christianity, to me, lies elsewhere than in whether we can historically verify that a supernatural resurrection happened to Jesus. (Again, Process is my main model/guide… something more serious about the range of spiritual experiences in the Bible than is classical “liberalism,” while more regarding of literary and historical analysis of the Bible than is Evangelicalism.)

I’m no longer convinced nor can I find any solid evidence (though I used to hold your position) that encountering a bodily-resurrected Jesus up close, touching him, seeing him eat and such was the kind of experience that enabled the transformation of dejected, defeated disciples. I’m as certain as I allow myself about anything that Paul, for example, was transformed by a visionary and revelatory set of experiences with Jesus, in his belief, and subsequently laid out much of the theology Christians hold to today. Neither he nor Luke (in Acts) claims he encountered anything other than what could be called the spirit of Jesus, though he was taken as quite real, not as we think of a ghost. (Not making too much of this alone, but in II Corinthians Paul says Christ IS the Spirit.)

Now, going just briefly further, Paul’s “gospel” (“my gospel,” as he says) differs, at LEAST in emphasis (I’d say in content as well, pretty clearly) from that of those who not only learned under the earthly Jesus, but supposedly were taught further by him for 40 days after the resurrection. In other words, even with resurrection appearances taken as real, basically valid (though seriously confused in differing accounts), they significantly do not demonstrate that the beliefs of the earliest Christians all came either directly from Jesus or from the Holy Spirit in the “Apostolic age.” On this key point it certainly appears that Christianity, though a wonderful breakthrough in some respects, developed in basically the same way other religions tend to.

More than one of the many ways of understanding who Jesus was (or is), besides the “second person of the trinity” who was supernaturally raised, can potentially account for why his followers persisted and multiplied, unlike those of similar Jewish messianic figures of that time and place.  But much also owes to Paul and the break-out to Gentiles he and others stimulated.

On my next post, in the next few days, I will add several related things for my broader audience.  

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    September 21, 2013 4:48 pm

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a set of references which provide a unique Understanding of the fabricated origins and insitutional political purposes of the “New” Testament.
    http://www.dabase.org/up-5-1.htm
    http://www.aboutadidam.org/articles/secret_identity
    http://www.aboutadidam.org/readings/birthday_message/index.html
    Plus radical philosophy for real people
    http://www.beezone.com/whiteandorangeproject/index.html

    • September 23, 2013 8:24 am

      Thank you, John.

      I haven’t had time to read much in the links you provided. But I read enough of the first one to see that it appears based on good scholarship and thinking at least…. Interesting and important points.

      I welcome such links in comments as long as they are responsible and work toward greater learning and understanding among people of differing beliefs. They don’t have to be something I necessarily agree with. If any comments or links, however, are hateful or seriously uncivil in tone, I will not approve them or will later remove them.

  2. hoju1959 permalink
    April 20, 2017 10:50 am

    Howard, do you think the 12 Disciples and James and the others in the Mother Church in Jerusalem were preaching the resurrection? Did Paul come up with the resurrection?

    • April 20, 2017 12:21 pm

      John, yes, I think they were… a sort of “resurrection” of the type Paul spoke about, from his own experience (probably a vivid, profound visionary one). It’s probably not possible to pin this down with certainty. Mostly because we have no writings by them, and to some degree the idea of “the Twelve” is a religious/literary fiction, it appears. However, Paul and Josephus seem to establish that James (probably brother of Jesus, but not the “Apostle” James) and Peter existed and played key leadership roles, as may some or all of the other twelve.

      What I think we can be more clear (and nearly certain) about than what kind of “resurrection appearances” they may have experienced or how they understood and “dogmatized” them is some “orthodox” things they did NOT believe. For example, if they thought Jesus was raised in some sense, they did not take it to be an abrogation of Torah (“OT” law). They did not cease Temple worship and were generally at least tolerated by Temple priests/leaders for many years (with some tensions, to be sure, and some “persecution”, but not necessarily what is storied in Acts, exactly). This can be seen in both Acts and Paul. They considered themselves and were generally so considered as a legitimate Jesus-following sect of Judaism, expecting Jesus’ soon “appearing”, probably, similarly to Paul, though they’d not elevated his cosmic status as had Paul (additional Greek or “mysticism” influence in Paul).

      So, IF (a gigantic “if”) Jesus repeatedly visited and taught them over 40 days (per Acts), it is most curious that he would not have given them the real meaning and effect of his death. The core of Christian faith over against older Judaism. He didn’t apparently give them, though they were asking questions (Acts 1), either info on “superseding” the Law and Temple sacrifices or about Jews and Gentiles becoming one in Christ (a logical extension it took Paul to bring out and emphasize, though Peter and perhaps Barnabas, etc., went part way there).

      I could say a lot more around this issue, but will stop with this and one referral, well worth getting and reading (maybe inter-library loan to save $ as it may be expensive, if available): “Resurrection Reconsidered” by Gregory J. Riley. It’s relatively little known, fairly specialized but not overly technical or hard to read, if I recall. Deals with both context in Hebrew/Greek resurrection concepts and with the purpose and meaning of some of the Gospel accounts, particularly the extended ones of “post-resurrection” in John… that vis-a-vis the Thomas competitors Riley believes were particularly in view. “Doubting Thomas” makes a good literary device but is also prominently featured for other, theological reasons.

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