Who Was Jesus? On Historical Inquiry

Jesus and the Logic of History, Vol. 3 (New Studies in Biblical Theology) Over the years, many modern and postmodern critical scholars have searched for the historical Jesus.  They typically pick and choose some ancient texts – or parts of ancient texts – to give readers a portrait of who Jesus was.  Quite often these scholars have an anti-Christian agenda, so their portrait of Christ is a far cry from the historic Christian portrait of him.  They end up with Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the feminist, Jesus the hippie, Jesus the sage, or Jesus the visionary (just to name a few).

Another reason these critical scholars’ portrait of Christ is at odds with traditional Christianity has to do with their use of historical sources: they basically ignore the NT epistles, doubt or avoid the NT gospels, and prefer texts like “Q” and “The Gospel of Thomas.”  Paul Barnett shows how this critical use of sources is problematic:

“Historical enquiry begins by assembling all the sources.  These will be classified according to proximity to the event, type of source (e.g. a gospel or a letter), original intended readership, original intended purpose, perceived interest or bias, intellectual competence, and so on.  …Sources which are distant from the event which cannot be shown to rest on data closer to it are to be treated with appropriate critical caution.”

In other words, if a person is doing research on a historical person or event he needs to assemble the sources in a right, proper, and honest way.  There is such a thing as a poor and unreliable resource!

“In this regard, the use of the non-canonical or apocryphal gospels, in particular the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ is problematic.  Historical method requires that all the sources be considered, with due weight given to early and underived sources.  The ‘Gospel of Thomas’ was written in the second century in Egypt, in a non-Palestinian religious ethos which was overtly gnostic.  Whatever traces of Jesus’ words and actions may be recovered in the ‘Gospel of Thomas’, this work is removed from the world of Jesus by a considerable passage of time and by the religious culture of a different country.”

So using the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ as a primary source to find the historical Jesus is very flawed.

“A number of scholars [also] make use of the hypothetical Q document as a means of attacking the traditional and orthodox view of Jesus as set out in the canonical gospels and the remainder of the New Testament.  The ‘Gospel of Thomas’  reproduces sayings of Jesus, but has little interest in his death and resurrection.  Likewise Q concentrates on the sayings and lacks concern for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  But both sources are problematic.  As noted above, ‘Thomas’ is late, remote, and derived.  Q is quite hypothetical, being without external reference by Paul, the early fathers, or the early manuscripts.  Neither ‘Thomas’ nor Q alone poses a threat to the views of the canonical gospels or to apostolic belief.  Nevertheless, when placed in an alliance, as by a number of scholars, they can be marshaled to attack the presentation of Jesus as we find it in the New Testament.  But two flawed hypotheses do not produce one flawless one.

These are some great observations!  The next time you read or hear a critic attacking the NT portrait of Christ by quoting other sources (like the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ or Q), remember that they have a certain bias and are not using the sources in a right, proper, or honest way.  Don’t let the critics shake your confidence in Christ and his word!

The above very slightly edited quotes are found on pages 26-27 of Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


5 comments on “Who Was Jesus? On Historical Inquiry

  1. Trent says:

    Hey Rev. Lems and Compton,
    I am curious if you know of any books or resources for interpreting the prophets for when they talk about the restoration of Israel and Zion (we all know dispys take them literally). I have run into three major ways, return of exile, the church now or future, or new heavens and new earth. Thanks!


    • Hmmm… I haven’t read any books that are strictly on the prophets’ eschatology, but if I remember correctly, Waltke in “An OT Theology” talks about it, Kim Riddlebarger in “Amillenialism” mentions it, and check out Anthony Hoekema’s “The Bible and the Future.” Send me an email if you want to dialogue further (pastorlems@gmail.com). Hope this helps!


  2. Trent says:

    Thank you!


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