Christian Insecurity: The Problem of History

“We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.” Rudolf Bultmann, German theologian

“As for the story of Jesus, there were at least 50 gospels written in the first and second century CE. Four of them (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John) were included in the official canon during the fourth century CE and are found today in every Bible. All of the original copies of the gospels were lost. What we have now are handwritten copies, which are an unknown number of replications removed from the originals.” 

As “evidence” the problem of Jewish survival and the problem of Parousia may comfortably be described “circumstantial.” Of great importance to Christian theology, beyond suggesting the insecurity described in this chapter, is their relative weakness as “evidence.” Not so the Search for the Historical Jesus. The mere existence of such a seeking after evidence, a project three centuries long and still inconclusive points directly at a material insecurity at the heart of the entire Christian project. 

Unlike Judaism’s “ancient history” shrouded in the mists of time, an oral tradition only set to writing after centuries, Christian roots emerged during a period of recorded history. Yet nowhere in the historical record does Jesus-of-scripture appear. And where Jesus mission is recorded, in the writings of Paul and the gospels, not even these sources are contemporaneous with the described life and mission of Jesus. Scriptural sources, according to nearly all contemporary historians, both Christian and non-Christian, are described “legendary.” Paul in his epistles represents the sole historical link to Jesus. And even Paul’s description of his “encounter” occurred more than a decade following the date tradition ascribes to the crucifixion, and even then Paul’s experience occurred only in a vision. 

Although many and far less famous and influential persons of the first century are documented in the historical record of the time Jesus appears only in documents composed by his followers, Paul and the gospels and letters, etc, the corpus of Christian scripture. This absence of Jesus from any documents outside of scriptural sources raised questions even among Paul’s earliest converts. In 1 Corinthians, responding to a challenge to his claim for an “earthly Jesus” Paul countered, 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 

Apparently even his own community in Corinth had a problem accepting “proclamation” as sole guarantee for Paul’s promised immortality through Christ Jesus. And doubt continues throughout Christian history until, in the eighteenth century, it inspired a “scientific” Christian scholarship dedicated to proving Jesus’ mortal existence. 

Before the Seventeenth Century (and among many Christians today) scripture was accepted as historical, unchallenged evidence for Jesus earthly existence. With the dawn of secularism and the emergence of scientific research Christian scholarship set out to prove beyond possibility of doubt Jesus physical presence in Judea described in the gospels. Scholarship, reliant on objective and material evidence, meant no longer taking for granted Paul and the gospels as “historical,” as contemporaneous with the lifetime of Jesus. The role of scripture would be to serve as a roadmap, much as Jewish scripture is used by Israeli archeologists today; to guide the search for physical evidence which would prove beyond doubt that Jesus lived and walked the earth in first century Judea.