In my introduction and first post on the person of Jesus, I discussed what effect and influence the mere idea of Jesus has had on human history over the past two thousand years. That is, the idea of a man who is fully human, and yet also, in some mysterious way, is also fully divine, God in the flesh; not just a god, but the God, the God of the Jews, Lord of all creation and all life; this God, who did not simply leave his throne to become human, which by itself is an unprecedented, overwhelming, simply staggering idea, but a God who became a man lowly and weak, without honor or wealth; and a God who allowed himself to be tortured, humiliated, and ultimately killed, in the most shameful and horrendous execution fit only for the most vile of criminals, before eventually conquering even death itself and coming back to life. The idea of this God-man who died for the sake of, and out of utter love for, all people, for the ultimate redemption, restoration, and recreation of the entire world; the idea of the God-man who in life was completely perfect in all his ways, and showed his followers how to truly live with the highest ethic ever preached on earth; who cared for the sick and marginalized; who above all loved with a love never before or since seen amongst mankind; this is the idea which was born from the story of Jesus of Nazareth; this is the idea which shook the planet and has covered all of human history in its glorious and profound shadow.
But the question arises: this idea, this beautiful and awesome idea, is it true? And how can we know?
Before I get into the technical aspects of the historical inquiry, I’d like to make a suggestion: that perhaps the idea of Jesus is an idea which has the beauty of myth, but the striking ring of fact and authenticity. It is the “myth become fact”  as C. S. Lewis himself would propose in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact.” In it he writes:
“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” .
In the same essay he writes:
“but Christians also need to be reminded . . . that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth…For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight” .
J. R. R. Tolkien similarly wrote:
“Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane” .
Tolkien called this idea “the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ of history” and went on to write:
“The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This history begins and ends in joy…There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true” .
But is it true, and can we really find it to be so? In other words, is the idea really a true myth, or just a myth?
Under this extremely broad and somewhat ambiguous question, I’m going to be framing my historical inquiry into the identity and historicity of Jesus with several more specific questions, which will be looked at below. These questions will hopefully act to guide and direct our search and thinking, so as to arrive at a confident and meaningful solution.
To arrive at the identity of Jesus, there are several main questions we can ask:
- Who did Jesus think that he was?
- Who did Jesus claim to be to others?
- Who did Jesus’s earliest followers believe him to be?
- What is the official, orthodox teaching of the Church, established in the creeds?
These questions will be the central focus of this series. However, these questions themselves assume certain facts, which can be arrived at by asking even more basic questions, such as:
- How can we know that a historical Jesus actually even existed?
- What facts can we be historically certain about from the life of Jesus and his earliest followers?
- Are there any reliable sources concerning the life, teachings, and fate of Jesus?
- In particular, are those documents which have been collected and come to be known as “the New Testament” trustworthy in any historical sense?
- What is the actual meaning of these New Testament documents, i.e., what are we to think of them theologically?
- Can historical inquiry say anything about miracles?
- In particular, what historical evidence/information is there concerning Jesus’s resurrection, and of what significance is it?
As I said in my previous posts, my main concern is that of the identity of Jesus, which the first four questions above seek to come to some conclusion about. Those questions, then, will comprise the greatest amount of space in my writing. However, inasmuch as answering the former four questions requires certain answers to the latter seven, these also will be of importance.
If these are our questions, then, how can we go about coming to some sort of answers to them? Indeed, all of the questions so far presuppose even more fundamental questions, such as:
- What is history?
- Can we know anything at all about history/the past?
- What methods/tools can we employ for historical inquiry, if any at all?
- To what degree of certainty can we obtain historical knowledge?
These last four questions are perhaps the most basic questions to be answered in any historical search, and as such they are of vital importance. In recent years, certain trends in postmodernism seem to have cast doubt upon the very possibility of conducting historical research/knowing anything at all about the past. However, for the majority of average people and even scholars, it is just common sense that we can know at least some things about the past. I may write an article later on in the series on precisely this issue, but for now I will just assume a common sense understanding of history/historical inquiry.
However, even if we assume that real, objective knowledge about history can be reached, it still remains to be seen how we can go about coming to this knowledge. Thus we will need to employ historical methodology.
This short post was meant merely to lay out the questions which I will be asking to frame and guide my inquiry. In the next post, I will begin to examine the historical methodology itself, and after that, to apply the methodology to the questions in order to arrive at sufficient answers.
. Mentioned in Lindsley, Art. C. S. Lewis’s Case for Christ: Insights from Reason, Imagination and Faith. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005. Print, 70.
. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 66-67. Quoted in: Lowery, Mark. “Myth Become Fact.” Catholic Education Resource Center. Catholic Education Resource Center, Jan./Feb. 2001. Web. 10 Jul. 2016. <http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/myth-become-fact.html>.
. Ibid, 67. Quoted in: Buchanan, Travis. “J. R. R. Tolkien & C. S. Lewis on the True Myth of the Gospel.” Transpositions. Transpositions. Web. 10 Jul. 2016. <http://www.transpositions.co.uk/tolkien-lewis-true-myth-of-the-gospel/>.
. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981/2000, 100-101. Quoted in: Buchanan, Travis. “J. R. R. Tolkien & C. S. Lewis on the True Myth of the Gospel.” Transpositions. Transpositions. Web. 10 Jul. 2016. <http://www.transpositions.co.uk/tolkien-lewis-true-myth-of-the-gospel/>.
. Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984), pp. 156-57. Quoted in: Lindsley, Art. C. S. Lewis’s Case for Christ: Insights from Reason, Imagination and Faith. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005. Print, 70.
Image credits: FreeImages.com/Bráulio Campos (http://www.freeimages.com/photo/jesus-1480847)