The Historical Jesus: The Problem of Science in the Context of Religion

Ain Riistan is a researcher of religious studies at UT and an associate professor  in theology of free churches and history of religions at Tartu Theological Seminary.

Icon of Jesus Christ at the Aya Sofya cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey

Detail of Deësis mosaic at the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, Turkey

Can a scientific study of a religious text be made without a religious component to it?

I say no, it cannot be done. I will demonstrate this point by focusing on one specific field of such studies: research on the historical Jesus.

The paradigm of the historical critical method in Biblical Studies is in a state of crisis. This is the overall conclusion of my doctoral thesis entitled “The Historical Jesus: the Problem of Science in the Context of Religion”. The thesis is composed of nine articles published in a period that extends over a decade.

What started as an optimistic scientific and religious interest in the figure of the historical Jesus more than ten years ago soon changed into a sort of disillusionment.

Despite the optimistic assurances of many scholars involved, the state of current Jesus studies is a mess. Just to give two examples: Firstly, the critical study that has been going on intensively for over two hundred years already has reached the point where it is now said that we can only assuredly know a few bare facts about Jesus – such as that he lived in 1st century Palestine (and there are scholars who doubt even that).

Secondly, researchers who have tried to overcome the aforementioned scepticism by working out their constructive treatments of the historical Jesus have come up with wildly differing pictures of who Jesus was and what he did. Many of these pictures have almost no relation at all to the general view of Jesus held in our Western culture that has been shaped by the teachings of the Christian Church.

Jesus is seen as a Jewish Messiah and prophet by many. But at the same time he may be a Pharisee, a Zealot, a wisdom teacher and a type of Cynic philosopher. He is an Essene for some, and has nothing to do with the Essenes for others.

For many he preaches Puritan-style sexual abstinence, for others he is a magician who participates in homosexual rites. He is a shaman, an exorcist, a village psychiatrist. He battles the structures of dominance and practises equality of fellowship, and he cares nothing about this world and is only a pious dreamer.

In the beginning it was fascinating to read about all these wildly differing theories, and to some extent it still is. But soon it made me wonder about the nature of the research itself.

There is an ongoing discussion about the methods of study, and lots of books and articles about it. There is a wide set of different criteria of authenticity, and the study itself is rigorous and demanding.

Nevertheless, it is the case that the same criteria of authenticity led different scholars to different conclusions about the historical reality of Jesus.

And then there is the question of religion. Our main sources about Jesus are the Gospels – explicitly religious texts that combine in their intent to make the reader believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

There is a history that is remembered (what happened) together with an interpretation (what it meant and means). Sometimes the interpretation overrules the memory and theological ideas are historicised (i.e., the religious idea is presented as a story about the history).

Take walking on water for example, or virgin birth. The point of these stories is that Jesus is the Son of God. Did these things really happen?

And herein lies the second problem: If the reader is a religious person, then there is no need for him or her to make the distinction. These New Testament statements can be accepted at face value.

I once made a poll in class asking students whether Jesus walked on water or not. Out of eight participants, four said yes, two were hesitant, and two said no. The four students who answered yes were of course the ones who were at the same time actively involved in the Church (one of them being a priest).

This is a question of the philosophical fundamentals of one’s worldview. I state it this way: If there is even a remote possibility that the universe was created by God (a question that is still open even for the natural sciences folks) then there is a possibility that an unlikely event like Jesus walking on water may have happened.

But the historical critical method is not equipped to handle such events; it can only rely on what is empirically verifiable. By the way, from the same principle it is also posited as believable that Jesus was a miracle worker who cured people, as there are miracle workers in today’s world too and sometimes they do cure some people.

What this means is that the scholar has to make choices: what is believable and what is not; to what extent the stories can be taken at face value; and what is interpretation and what is memory. These are extremely complex questions.

The main point of my thesis is that from the beginning the historical critical method has had to deal with an inbuilt tension – to study a religious text while ignoring or opposing the religiousness of it. It is this tension has led scholars both to scepticism and an inability to reach a consensus even in most of the important questions related to the study.

Even if scholars have tried to ignore the religious context of their research, it is not possible. Opinions about religious matters are always a part of this type of research. And as these opinions differ, so do the results of the study, no matter how rigorously one has followed the scientific method.

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