The Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Editor - What History Can, and Cannot, Do
It didn't hit me until I was in the middle of editing the issue: we were about to tell readers about Jesus.
It isn't just a matter of getting it historically right. It goes without saying that at Christian History history is the priority. But I've felt the weight of presenting Jesus honestly and accurately because, well, he's my master, not to mention Lord of the cosmos. I want to get Luther, Calvin, and Wesley right because I respect them. But Jesus is someone I've given my life to. I really—really—want to get him right.
Some people may say that trying to understand Jesus historically is foolish at worst and risky at best, so let me clarify what we're trying to do here.
We're not trying to prove or disprove the reality of different incidents recorded in the Gospels. There simply isn't enough evidence to verify such matters one way or the other because, aside from the four Gospels, we have no other credible sources on the life of Jesus.
Some scholars, of course, decide on the credibility of a story based on how incredible it is. But this is to practice history badly. The funny thing is that less incredible episodes—take the incident of the woman caught in adultery—have little corroborating evidence: it's only mentioned in one Gospel and never referred to again in the rest of the New Testament. On the other hand, the most incredible event recorded, the Resurrection, has a great deal of corroborating evidence: four separate records, the dependence on what were considered unreliable witnesses, the inability of the authorities to produce a body, the changed attitude of the disciples, etc.
About all the discipline of history can do is marshal enough evidence to show that it is reasonable to trust the story the Gospels tell. That's essentially what Ben Witherington's article (page 12) does.
A large part of that "case," though, is to show that the world as portrayed in the Gospels accords with what we know from archaeology about the world of first-century Palestine. That's essentially what the rest of the issue is about.
To put it another way, we're not trying to prove by means of the discipline of history that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Lord of all. Only a combination of disciplines—history, biblical exegesis, homiletics, and theology (as well as prayer and faith)—can show someone that Jesus is who he claims to be. But we're hoping that this foray into first-century Palestine will play its part in helping readers believe even more deeply in the transcendent Lord of history.
Come to think of it, that's what we're trying to do ultimately in every issue of Christian History.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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