Friday, March 19, 2010

A historical religion - or nothing

Paul Johnson, author of A History of Christianity (1979), delivered a lecture in 1986, "A Historian Looks at Jesus," which has been made available online by BreakPoint. It is much longer than the excerpts below, and refers to some of the evidence justifying his conclusions. Johnson begins by reminding us that our faith is meaningless if not based on historical fact, or, as the Apostle Paul put it about one historical event, "...if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." (1 Co 15:14, ESV)
Christianity, like the Judaism from which it sprang, is a historical religion, or it is nothing. It does not deal in myths and metaphors and symbols, or in states of being and cycles. It deals in facts. It presupposes a linear flight in time, through a real universe of concrete events. It sees humanity as marching inexorably from an irrecoverable past into an unprecedented future. The march is not haphazard. It proceeds according to a divine plan, in part revealed to us. Christians believe that certain specific, historical events occurred, and that, in time, certain other specific historical events will occur, bringing humanity’s sojourn in this world to a climax. Then, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, “time must have a stop." There the Christian’s perception of the timeless world of eternity—the nonhistorical afterlife—is much less clear. But the Christian notion of historical time is very definite, and central to the faith.

Jesus, the Son of God, was born of a virgin, at a particular time and in a specific place. He was God and man. He was crucified for our sins, but rose again the third day. The incarnation and the resurrection are not metaphors but actual, historical events. A man or woman cannot reject their historicity and remain a Christian. To accept the message of Christ, the teaching, the ethics, the example, the human perfection of Christ, is not enough. It is necessary to accept the Godhead as well as the manhood, to believe that the incarnation and the resurrection actually occurred. Without them, Christianity is nothing; it becomes a mere fantasy, a delusion. ....

The late nineteenth- early twentieth-century notion that the New Testament was a collection of late and highly imaginative records can no longer be seriously held. No one now doubts that St. Paul’s epistles, the earliest Christian records, are authentic or dates them later than the A.D. 50s. Most scholars now date the earliest gospel, the so-called “Q,” not later than about 50 A.D.; Mark, 65 AD.; Matthew and Luke from the 80s or 90s; John not later than 90-100.Some scholars, notably the late Dr. John Robinson, put them considerably earlier: Mark possibly as early as 45 A.D., only a decade and a half or so from Christ’s passion; Matthew, between 40 and 60; Luke, 55-60; and John possibly as late as 65 A.D. plus, but possibly as early as 40.

I doubt if there is any serious scholar alive now who would deny Jesus’ historical existence. Indeed, He is much better authenticated than many secular figures of antiquity whose existence no one has ever presumed to question. ....

.... What is clear beyond doubt is that whereas in the nineteenth century the tendency of history was to cast doubt of the veracity of Judeo-Christian records and to undermine popular faith in God and His Son as presented in the Bible, in the twentieth century it has moved in quite the opposite direction, and there is no sign of the process coming to an end. It is not now the men of faith, it is the skeptics, who have reason to fear the course of discovery.

However, the historian, whether he be a Christian or not, must emphasize that the vindication of the New Testament records as authentic documents describing actual events concerning a real man does not in any way “prove” that He was God too, and that the incarnation and resurrection actually occurred.

All that it establishes is that men and women who lived at and shortly after the time believed these things. ....
Thanks to Tom Gilson for the reference.

A Historian Looks at Jesus