This page presents a discussion I had with a friend in the theology department of the university I work for. The grey items are the questions I asked and the text after each one (in black) are the replies.
General Response to Questions
Firstly, blimmin excellent questions - and ones I wish more church-goers would actually either even think of, or have the courage to ask and find out about!
At the outset, I am wondering who you are having these discussions with in the sense that if they aren't agreeing with the sorts of things you are saying here then I suspect they may well be fairly (or outrightly) conservative in which case you have got very little chance of "converting" them or even having a conversation where you could be on the same page!
One observation I have made after many years in Christian/theological circles is that theology/faith/Christianity/ religion is a lot like politics - there are people at either end of the spectrum and everywhere in between, and yet all professing some sort of belief/opinion etc. And while someone from ACT is never likely to make a good coalition partner with someone from The Greens for eg., it is the same in theology - it's like there are completely different mindsets, world views etc that are virtually impossible to reconcile ...
In fact, ask a Christian which political party they voted for and you can probably glean a lot about their faith/theological views! (As for which came first, my personal view would be the politics ...)
1. Do most theologians think Jesus really existed in a form recognisable as the character described in the Bible?
I think most theologians - as opposed to those doing religious studies, for eg - will have some sort of acceptance that the person of Jesus did exist as a real historical figure - no more or less than Alexander the Great, or - perhaps a better example (in that she was the local hero type figure who was on the fringes of the empire) - Boedicea. BUT as to who Jesus REALLY was, in his everyday historical life, is pretty hard to ascertain with a lot of certainty - as it is with any of these historical figures when you think about it - most writings about these figures is written by someone else and usually for a particular reason - to persuade others about something, to hold them up as an ethical example, or as an example of what NOT to do etc etc. Add to this that most ancient historical writing (even in our current day although we actually like to think that objectivism is possible) was NOT written to be objective but was openly persuasive, or just plainly to make a good story really interesting!
So what do we have in the New Testament? Four gospels which in their own way aim to tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, but why? So that their community that they are writing to can learn from it - how to cope under persecution, how to develop their sense of identity as Christians in either a Jewish context or a "pagan" one etc etc. None of them - bar Luke perhaps - set out to really give what we would call an accurate biography etc. There is no mention of what Jesus looks like, not much mention of his life leading up to the events of his ministry etc.
And so not surprisingly very different Jesus' emerge! Mark's Jesus is very raw, human, emotional, rough and ready etc. He gets angry, doesn't know what's going to happen next, gets tired, is tempted etc etc. By contrast, John's Jesus is sure and certain, in control, calm, and pretty Greek really - the epitome of the self-controlled elite male!
Some people suggest it's like 4 different eye-witnesses to a car accident - all will say something slightly different - or that great story about the 4 blind men who touch different parts of the elephant! But it's way more complex than that! You have to take into account WHY each author (whoever they were - we will get to that!) wrote their gospel, what sources they had, etc.
BUT in saying that, there are a great majority of theologians/biblical scholars who do say that we CAN glean SOMETHING about this person Jesus from looking at all these texts - it is possible to sift through the biases of the writer and get SOME sense of this person ...
Of course, and this is the hilarious thing really, this "quest for the historical Jesus" (as opposed to the Christ of Faith) has led to widely varying portraits of Jesus! Albert Schweitzer's crazy wild prophetic figure, to more recent views of Jesus as Hellenistic Cynic Sage ... Even the whole blonde-blue-eyed Jesus figure of those trashy paintings has an academic background in German scholarship of the early twentieth century which viewed Jesus as Aryan (surprise surprise)!
A good book on this - giving a good overview of these varying "quests" is Ben Witherington's The Jesus quest: the third search for the Jew of Nazareth (on Google books or in the Uni lib)
2. Do they think the supernatural events really happened or do they just start with the assumption they did (do theologians usually have a world view which includes the supernatural?)
I think most have assumptions they bring to the text - about everything really! But no more or less than do anthropologists, psychologists, historians, etc etc. when they approach their texts. Most Westerners are rationalists, materialists etc (post enlightenment, science = truth etc) so assume that "magic or the "supernatural" doesn't exist - which is contrast to how most people in the rest of the world actually think! So that is interesting for a start!
Therefore those who DO come to the text and accept the possibility of miracles, for example, are kind-of oddball in out society anyway.
However, if you dig into WHY they accept the supernatural, things get even more interesting because it is unlikely that they will also therefore belief in ghosts or psychics or anything like that (which, conversely, it seems many supposedly rational Westerners DO believe in!)
So what we discover is that they believe in miracles - or let's say those presented in the Gospels - Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine, healing people etc - because of their view of the Bible; if it says it in the Bible then it must be true.
So it is one's view of Scripture that is really at stake here - what kind of text is this? What is the nature of what is written here? What is its value? etc.
IF they think that the Bible = God's Word = inspired by God (sometimes = dictated by God) then they will also therefore conclude that the bible = truth and that this therefore = no errors.
This is a HUGE issue!
For others (like myself), who see this a collection of books, written over a period of several hundred years, in different languages then the KEY point is that is is ALSO written in different GENRE - poetry, lament, story/narrative, letters, law, history, apocalyptic literature etc. And therefore this determines the way in which one reads these events - for eg, I do not take Gen 1-2 as literal because it is NOT a text book, it is NOT a manual etc it is a poem, and in fact a polemical poem/story written to persuade (as always) people of a differing "mythology" of origins ...
So, the gospels and the miracles/supernatural?
Depends a lot on how one views ancient writings - and their beliefs in fact. Did the authors themselves actually believe in the supernatural? Did they actually think they were writing about an actual event? Or were they ok - perhaps not even consciously - with embellishment, creativity, symbolism etc.?
How one considers these sorts of questions underlies how one therefore views the supernatural events described in these texts - one's view of the text itself (in terms of it's capacity for "truth/error," it's purpose in terms of it's genre, it's reason for being written etc)
I think many theologians simply accept these events as "truth" because they accept that the Bible is truth, and they haven't really dug into questions like genre or purpose, let alone the place of "truth" in ancient writing etc.! Things get a lot more complex if one does dig into this a bit, and it is in fact hard to determine (1) authorial intent - they knew it didn't happen but it was an acceptable convention to utilize the supernatural to make a point? - or they actually thought it did happen because their world view was open to that kind of event? (2) and therefore the "reality" behind the text!
I myself am a bit on the fence - sometimes I find rational explanations for all these things (eg. there was a sand bar under Jesus' feet) almost as unconvincing - and just a product of a Western world view that privileges scientific explanation as "truth" - I would prefer to try and place these events in their ancient context and compare them with other contemporaneous writings and world views ... Therefore I am not really all that sure what DID happen, but I would suspect that the author of that story wants to use that even to persuade his readers of something about Jesus or about life etc and that is where the "truth" lies really ...
3. Regarding the New Testament. Most of the writers are unknown, right. And even when some writing is attributed its often doubtful (eg Paul is attributed 13 epistles but 6 are doubtful, right?). Were there any writers at all who wrote from first hand experience having met Jesus?
Yes, most unknown - because that's how they did it back then! So not unusual - authorship just not a central issue for Greco-Roman writings - check out any classical writings etc and there are always authorship issues! Fascinating! Again - can be another example of our Western preoccupations asking questions of ancient texts that they just do not deal with!
So, specifically, the Gospels were all given their titles ("The Gospel According to Luke") by the church many years later, BUT not entirely based on bad reasons! Sure, it became important to attribute authorship to key people to give the text more authority/value, but this was not altogether random.
Two ways of determining authorship - external evidence (clues from other sources) and internal evidence (from the text itself). And so it is all about probabilities! Weighing up the evidence (this is also what classical scholars do)
Luke is a great example - he says at the outset "Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events ... I too decided, after investigating everything ... to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus ..." (Luke 1.1-4), so we ask, who is this "I"? Acts 1.1 says, "In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did ..." So we can see that it is most likely that these two books were written by the same person ... And who was this then? Short answer, there are places in Acts where the narrative shifts to "we did this, we did that" and in the end it seems that "Luke" is the same "Luke" who travelled with Paul - was an educated Greek (and yes his Greek is by far the best in the NT), like to have been a doctor - Paul's slave? - and was commissioned to write these volumes (possibly a third that never got written or is lost - although never referred to so perhaps Luke died etc) by this Theophilus (who paid for the manuscripts etc - it was not a cheap process!) - the focus seems to be on the Gentile (and "pagan") elements in the church - as opposed to the Jewish parts - and that fits too with this companion of Paul - as a Greek - so, not surprisingly, his Jesus is often dealing with Gentiles (great to emphasise this for a Gentile audience who perhaps feel a little on the outer of a Jewish religion!) ...
Matthew - evidence weighs in favour of it being likely (never certain) that this was the same Matthew who was a tax-collector disciple of Jesus - but perhaps dictated many years later and thus written by someone with Greek as a first language, or just passed on orally and collected later by editors (as with most if not all of these and other ancient texts!)
Mark - who knows, but evidence suggests it is likely he is the John Mark referred to by Paul in his letters, and thus young at the time of Jesus, whose mother hosted the Last Supper (?), and thus possibly the young man who flees naked in Mark 14.51-2! But it is also likely, that Peter, many years after the events, described things to Mark who wrote them down - certainly Peter gets most mention but also most unfavorable mention throughout the Gospel - felt bad about his part in Jesus arrest etc.? Lots of failings highlighted...
John - lots of debate, certainly a late writing, so possibly by those who followed the disciple John and wrote in his name? Or John in his old age?
Letters attributed to Paul - exactly as you say - some are written in his name - again very common practice in ancient writings - not aimed to deceive people at all but to indicate the tradition one follows, so that one's audience have a sense of where you are coming from! Again, classic issue with those who take the text as "truth" - if it says "from Paul" then it must be! But this just shows a lack of understanding about ancient writing practices! So how do we determine which are "authentic" and which are pseudepigraphical? Again, weighing up probabilities and thus not an exact science! Scholars differ on the weight they give to things like choice of vocabulary (as typically Pauline or not!) etc.
Paul himself would say that he met Christ - but this is the risen Christ, not Jesus the person ... (see Galatians 1.13-24 but of course this version differs from the account in Acts [chapters 9, 22 & 26 - which all differ anyway! But remember that Luke is writing ancient history and thus shifting emphasis, highlighting certain aspects of an event, etc are what is central, not some Western notion of objectivity!] Written by Luke - so who do we believe?! Paul - but perhaps he is writing to persuade the Galatians of his worth as an apostle - he says he didn't confer with anyone? yeah right! but as he says, "I do not lie!", tricky ...) and he hardly refers to "Jesus" as an historical person, in terms of his life/ministry but is much more focused on "Christ" and his present reality so to speak...
Again, key issue is really an understanding of ancient letter/historical writing practices... No biggie really, unless one is of the view that a literal reading of the text is what is important but then, as far as I am concerned, you just end up in knots!
4. Regarding the gospels. Do the canonical gospels have any true merit beyond all the others which the early church decided not to include?
There are lots of "gospels" - not as many as Dan Brown would have us believe, but let's say about 20. And they do have some merit - mostly, for me, in that they tell us a lot about various strands of Christianity that existed in those first 300 years - and that they remind us therefore that which strand triumphed (so to speak) was not the only strand that was around - it's a lot like the early video recorders! How Beta is now no longer a brand (?), but at the start was there were more than the one that "won" out in the end? Similar idea. Not necessarily a big major conspiracy issue, but just how life goes!
The canonical gospels have the advantage of actually being written earlier - most of the "gnostic" gospels are later documents (written in 2nd century) so that is one thing where they have some true merit. They are also often written more carefully - in the sense of how they are constructed as documents - the "other" gospels are often just lists of sayings - so you can see, from a readership point of view - why the 4 we have in the NT were more popular anyway! They are more comprehensive - and also - to be honest - the Jesus that is in some of the "other" gospels - like the Gospel of Thomas for eg - is just plain misogynist and racist etc.! So I can also see why it wasn't as popular!
So in many ways it was the various communities around the Mediterranean that determined which gospels would survive, become popular, be given "authority" WAY more than the current popular idea that THE church (as if it was some monolithic governing body) made the decisions - the various councils that were held (WAY later) in many ways ratified what was happening less than determining it, if you see what I mean. Lots of discussion and debate of course - churches in the East conceded to the West about certain books (looking beyond just the Gospels now - cos there are also tons of other letters and apocalypses too!) and vice versa - the history of the formation of the Canon goes right up to the 16th century when Luther wanted the book of James out of the NT! (too much emphasis on "works"!) As a collection of books in a library, some were always on the "Top 100" list and others were variously in and out, for various reasons!
5. All the gospels were written by unknown people at least 60 CE, right? So none are eye witness accounts, except they are based on Q but we know nothing about that do we? Could Q be written by a real witness?
The process of writing was complex - oral sources (ie. Luke seems to have talked to Mary to get the early stuff), stories/sayings passed down, memories collected/dictated, etc., editing, translation even - did Matthew write in Hebrew perhaps and was then translated into Greek? - and written sources - such as Q, and, most likely, Mark (used by Luke and Matthew)!
So the concept of "eye witness" account is tricky - true, Jesus for a start did not write anything (not unusual - neither did most "famous" people in ancient times - writing was NOT a common skill, nor something done in an oral culture! The spoken word carried more weight in law courts than the written word! That fact alone says a lot!) so for Mark to write down Peter's recollections, or Luke to record events that happen to Paul, for example, is about as close as we get ... (unless you accept Matthew and John as actual disciples - I am not convinced either way - but it will no doubt go back to their stories/recollections I suspect)
Yes, Mark is 60 CE ish, then Luke and Matthew, who use 'Q' and Mark and their own sources, about 70-80 CE.
And then John about 80-90 CE who totally writes independently - only about 3-10% (?) in common with the other 3 gospels! Which is quite fascinating! Even when there is a common story (the feeding of the 500, say) he often uses different vocab (for the word "fish"!)
(So, actually, John is a good example of a gospel included in the Canon which is VERY different from the others - the Church [as a whole] was pretty open to different views really)
Q is a fascinating idea! A collection of sayings of Jesus that appears throughout Matthew and Luke - where they are at time 99% verbatim - which is pretty rare feat in any sort of writing really, let alone in Greek where word order doesn't matter! - and yet we do not have it!
IF Q existed - which based on the verbatim stuff I tend to think it did - again it's all probability stuff - then it will be earlier than the Gospels, so let's say pre 70CE ish, so again, not necessarily directly written BY an eye-witness, but for sure, an early collection of sayings, written down at some point by someone!
Mark doesn't use it, which is also interesting - not aware of it? Wasn't around then? I suspect just not aware of it - he is NOT trying to do a comprehensive account anyway, unlike Luke, for eg. and what Jesus DID is more important to Mark than what Jesus SAID anyway ... etc etc.
6. Is there any credible material outside the Bible describing Jesus? I know about Tacitus but that seems rather indirect and uncertain. Also Josephus but the big one there is a forgery, right? And the lesser reference is rather vague, agreed?
Only some references to "the Christians" - by Pliny for example.
But it is no less an issue for other historical figures of the time in many ways - was Boadicea a real person? Probably. Is she the person who we know about through other records, scant as they may be? Maybe.
And what about those figures who we DO have alot of writing about - such as Alexander - how much we do believe about what was written about him anyway?
Always good questions to ask about any person in history really!
Issues of the validity of our sources - across the board - think of those holocaust survivor stories that were discovered to be fake etc. - is a big one for history in general ...
7. Is it reasonable to expect that if someone like Jesus was wandering around attracting a lot of attention, crowds, performing miracles, etc that there would be some reference to him in Roman, Jewish, etc written material of the day? Should we expect to find any of that?
I think this is an interesting one, but it comes down to questions of hindsight in many ways ... When I think about even recent figures like Vincent Van Gogh - more famous after death than before it - or writers or philosophers too - was there much written on them at the time? maybe not much. But their influence came later and thus so did the writing about them ...
Add to this the literacy levels in ancient Palestine - minimal in an oral culture in many ways - and also, for those who could write - religious leaders, political/governmental workers - when you dealt with rebellious insurgents you really just got rid of them rather than write about them - crucify the guy, get rid of the problem!
And then add to this that they may well have kept records - of who they put on trial, who they executed etc - but, as with 99% of historical data like this, we just don't have those records anymore ... That we have this letter from Pliny is quite cool in that way - the day to day business of dealing with minority groups who might make trouble etc.
8. Why did none of Jesus' followers write about him? Did they think the world was going to end soon anyway? Is the famous reference in Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32 really a prediction of the end of the world, second coming, etc?
I think this is also very interesting.
One, literacy is an issue - followers of a teacher would usually get educated but oral tradition was WAY more significant than writing - debates, discussions, etc were the modis operandi! (This is in Palestine, the Jewish context I am thinking of).
But yes, add to this an expectation (by Jesus also? Quite possible!) that in his death he would bring about God's intervention - to rid Israel of the Roman occupation and to restore freedom to the people - then there was no need to write anything down!
After his death, when things carried on as normal, many followers thought he had failed in his mission, of course, but those who maintained a belief - who became converted (Paul for example) - really did seem to think that "The End" ( be that on a political or a cosmic level) was going to happen in their lifetime - so again no need to write anything down!
But as the first followers/converts began to die, and the realisation that God was not intervening began to dawn, then the need to record the stories/sayings/events etc became apparent.
Paul seems to modify his expectations in this regard as time went on - his earliest letters (and thus the earliest documents we have in the NT) seem to imply an urgency and a sense of impending end-time and an expectation that this will all happen in his lifetime (see 1 Thess 1.10, 2.19, 3.13, and esp 4.13-18 etc.) but this shifts over time to a concept that is further off - one day, on that day, etc.
As for those intriguing passages in the Gospel that seem to be about the end of the world (as we know it, I feel fine [ sorry! always think of REM at that point!]), do seem to imply that Jesus was expecting God to intervene (a prominent Jewish tradition since the conquering of the area by Alex the Great, and then the Romans) - and perhaps - as I hinted at above - Jesus himself thought he would "force" God's hand my getting himself arrested and even killed - I think some of his words on the cross imply a disappointment that God didn't break in and restore Israel at that point (bit sad really, but not an uncommon end result for many a revolutionary).
As for if these words/passages a some sort of prophecy regarding THE end times in general, I doubt it! But many a Christian does think this - and, not surprisingly, thinks that it will happen in their lifetime AND that the signs are there to prove it (volcanic eruptions and earthquakes!)
I put a quote on our white board here in the Post grad office about Rush Limbaugh's statement (that the volcanic eruption is God's judgment) and it led to a conversation that revealed that some PhD students IN THIS OFFICE think precisely this - that the world WILL end soon!
And hey, it might, I guess - can't rule that out really in terms of nuclear bombs, global warming, viruses etc - but as for it being God's judgment, or some sort of Doomsday thing, I doubt it. people have lived through so much worse and have always felt that the world is going to end and it never does!
I think for Gospel writers, for example, to return to this aspect of the discussion, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE must have really made them think along these lines - and this is where some of this emphasis comes - and this is one argument for when we date the Gospels - as is various persecutions too such as Nero (this seems to form the background of Mark's Gospel - lots of emphasis on suffering etc) - and how they worked out their thinking along these lines - for Matt and Luke writing post 70CE, how does one deal with the fact that the world didn't end as Jesus seemed to imply?! Push it all further into the future! etc.
9. There are a few people who oppose the conventional views and who say they are theologians, Bob Price would be one. Do these people have any academic credibility?
Nup. Partly this is due to questions about who publishes his kind of work - if it was published by Sheffield or SBL or Routledge or T&T Clark or Cambridge etc then I would take it more seriously ... But then again, I do not take seriously works published by fundamentalist publishers either whereas many do, so I guess this comes down to preferences ... BUT, to strictly answer your question - while many of the Jesus Seminar type folk are very intellectual etc they have really stepped out of accepted academia - not that that is always a bad thing of course.
His skepticism is great and I love how he challenges the fundamentalists etc but sadly, saying things like, unless we find his diary or the skeleton we'll never know about the existence of Jesus is quite mad - do we have Alex the Great's skeleton (let alone Nero or Cleopatra etc!)? Do we even have Hitler's?! If the majority of people in the world can't write now, let alone then, why expect a diary from someone who lived in a culture where oral tradition was central?!
To me comments like this betray a serious lack of understanding about ancient cultures etc and also to apply this "logic" only to Jesus is absurd anyway - half the world can't have existed according to this guy!
It's a pity because really what he probably wants to emphasise is the difference between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith/the church - and this much is very true. The Gospels, to me, are first and foremost documents that tell us a lot about the early Christian communities and the issues they were dealing with etc. But I wouldn't want to dismiss the whole lot as totally unhistorical - the "truth" will lie somewhere between Bultmann's "almost nothing" and a fundamentalist's "everything" ...
I am sure that over time WHO Jesus was and what he did was less important than what he stood for - we can see this in Paul's letters! And many churches ignore the Gospels in favour of Paul - esp Protestant denominations - but to then dismiss his very existence is a little over the top ... I don't doubt for one minute that Nero or Augustus existed - or even Boadicea - but I also don't doubt that their portraits in the literature are influenced by the intent of the author to persuade people about certain things - no less than a biography of Diana Princess of Wales may show her in favourable light, or not, depending on the author's intention ... And it's not always about a deliberate attempt to deceive people either - it's just what happens when we write about anything really! When something was written, the historical context, the politics of the day, what was important to convey, etc etc all influence what gets said ...
I do find it challenging, however, to consider WHY the early Christians would have risked their lives over certain things if there wasn't SOME grain of reality behind things - like, as Jews, to change the day of worship - totally radical, unheard of, breaks one of the Ten Commandments - and same with not worrying about circumcision anymore ... As for suffering persecution or dying, that one doesn't convince me - people do this all the time for what they believe in ... But I find the radical changes in orthopraxy - and thus in their beliefs quite astounding ...
And yet I am still ok with the use of current stories/myths etc as a way of telling "truth" - probably why I am such a fan of all the Greek myths etc too - questions of what is "true" and what is "real" often get confused ...