While few scholars doubt that Jesus ever lived, several approaches have been popular over the years that propose to limit what we can know about the historical Jesus. We will investigate a number of common misconceptions that would restrict research on our topic. Each challenge will be presented, followed by an initial critique. Many of the criticisms in this chapter will anticipate the research that will be presented subsequently.
A Demythologized Jesus
From about 1930–1960, a popular view was that the Gospels do not present a historical record of Jesus, but a witness to early Christian belief. Since the writers were more concerned about faith and the application of the Christian message to daily concerns than about actual events in the life of Jesus, we know much less about the historical Jesus than the Gospels actually record.
The most influential version of such a view was popularized by Rudolf Bultmann, who held that the Gospels were essentially a later interpretation of Jesus’ person and teachings, largely in mythical terms. The early post-Easter faith allowed a free modification of the historical Jesus into a partially mythical figure. According to this theory, the Gospel writers used imagery to express spiritual concepts in mundane terms.
For instance, God’s transcendence might be described as immense spatial distance. Or God’s use of a miracle to control nature would really reveal his omnipotence. However, these mythical expressions were said to be literally meaningless today. The chief job for theologians, according to Bultmann, was to demythologize the Gospels by ascertaining what the writers were really trying to communicate and by reinterpreting it into a message that was existentially valid for twentieth century humanity.^1
A major example was Bultmann’s treatment of the resurrection of Jesus, which was accomplished without a historical investigation of any sort. He concludes at the very outset, “Is it not a mythical event pure and simple? Obviously it is not an event of past history.”^2
While the earliest disciples’ faith in the resurrection was a historical fact, it is not even important to know the cause of this belief.^3 Thus, the historicity of the resurrection was rejected a priori as a myth, without any attempt to investigate the facts. Even the importance of such historical research was rejected. Because the early church was said not to have been interested in recording history, legend was mixed into the Gospel accounts. The result was that Bultmann thought there was much uncertainty concerning historical aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings.^4
1 Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, pp. 16–21, 35–38.
2 Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” p. 38. ^3 3 Ibid., p. 42. Bultmann expresses the same view in his Theology, vol. I, p. 45. ^4 4 Bultmann, “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels,” pp. 60–61, 64, 72.
From Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus – Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ (in print at Amazon)
In his earlier writings, Bultmann expressed this conclusion quite strongly, such as his belief that “we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personalty of Jesus.”^5 Still, there is no doubt that Bultmann accepted a number of historical facts concerning the life and message of Jesus, especially in his later writings.^6 Bultmann’s view will be presented in Chapter 7, where we will list a number of historical facts that are even accepted by historical skeptics.