Episode 35: The Jesus of history

We’re always encouraging people to read their Bibles and we often suggest starting with the Gospels.  Josh and Paul discuss what you’re likely to come across if you’re a new reader of the Bible, coming to the Gospels for the first time. What’s the historical basis behind it all? How do you deal with all the miracles?  They consider ways to think about both what Jesus said and what he did, and what to look out for as unique and special in Jesus that is ‘proclaiming the kingdom of God’. They finish up by thinking about how faith might develop from reading the Gospels.

Show Notes

Josh begins by showing from each of the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that when you start reading you pretty quickly get into unfamiliar language or concepts. Matthew starts with a long family tree, Mark starts with Jesus’ baptism and the heavens torn open with a spirit-dove descending, Luke begins with two miraculous births and John… well, just wow! So how does a new reader of the Gospels not get distracted by these unfamiliar ideas and the miracles?

Is there a Jesus of history?

Paul suggests one way to start is to temporarily “suspend disbelief” for the sake of trying to hear the overall story that is being told, or the underlying truth that is being expressed, much like we would for a film or a book.  But Josh points out that, even if you take that approach, you still need some comfort that there is a historical basis to it all. So Paul runs through the external evidence for the existence of Jesus and the scholarly consensus that Jesus was a real person who did and said some remarkable things.

Paul then focuses on two aspects – what Jesus said and what he did and takes some examples of how to read these as coming from a real, historical Jesus.  But first of all they note that we must try to avoid creating a view of Jesus which is in our own image – a reflection of ourselves in which we only hear and see what we want to and can immediately relate to. To illustrate this Paul uses a very early picture of Jesus found in Rome which is completely different from the typical images of Jesus found in western art!

Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome mid-late 3rd century

Hearing the Kingdom of God

He explores two examples of what Jesus says, one from the sermon on the mount and the other from Jesus’ words about Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives.  They are two very different sayings of Jesus but in both cases they can be read as absolutely rooted in the historical time and place, in the culture and religion of 1st century Judea. But in both cases Jesus adds a twist and brings something new to what he says.  If you start to see this when you read Jesus’ words then, Paul suggests, you are starting to hear the kingdom of God proclaimed through these accounts.

Then Josh and Paul discuss what Jesus did and how he behaved with and treated other people. They get into thinking about how to read about miracles while you might still be a bit sceptical about whether miracles can happen.  Paul suggests it can be helpful to think about how the Gospel writers put their narrative together and what they are claiming about Jesus overall, rather than getting caught up on the details of what might be involved in each specific miracle.

Faith in the Jesus of history

As they draw to a close, Josh and Paul reflect on how discovering what we can know about the Jesus of history is not necessarily going to produce faith in him.  Christianity is ultimately based on, and dependent upon a historical, miraculous claim – that Jesus rose from the dead. They conclude that considering the evidence around that is probably the next step to explore for someone new to the Gospels – but that’s covered in other episodes!

Further resources

We briefly considered some of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in episode 21: He is risen! and you’ll find more resources on that specific question in the show notes.

Our series on Matthew’s gospel walked through the major themes of the book to try to discover who Jesus really was and we looked at some of the differences between the four gospels in episode 9: Why are there four Gospels?