Making Jesus in our own image: professor of religion Scot McKnight on the historical Jesus

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Who is the historical Jesus? What can historical research tell us about him? Scot McKnight is a professor of religion at North Park University in Chicago who has been intimately involved in “Historical Jesus Research” for the past several decades.  In a fascinating article published in April of 2010, (Christianity Today), McKnight describes how, after years of passionate research, the quest for the historical Jesus is at a dead end.

Illustrating this point in his classroom, he asks students to take a test about what kind of person they think Jesus was. Was he outgoing or shy, etc. Then they take the same test, only about themselves. The results showed that people picture Jesus to be just like them; and the same is true, McKnight concludes, of religious historians.

McKnight quotes Dale Allison, one of America’s top New Testament scholars, who says:

“Professional historians are not bloodless templates passively registering the facts: we actively and imaginatively project. Our rationality cannot be extricated from our sentiments and feelings, our hopes and fears, our hunches and ambitions. Maybe we have unthinkingly reduced biography [of Jesus] to autobiography.”

“The fragmentary and imperfect nature of the evidence as well as the limitations of our historical-critical abilities should move us to confess, if we are conscientious, how hard it is to recover the past. We wield our criteria to get what we want.” (The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus)

With virtually no evidence regarding the real, historical Jesus, the best historians can do is project their interpretations of Him. So far, I’m in total agreement. But McKnight makes two further, highly contradictory claims.

The first is an observation which I’m pleased McKnight had the courage to admit – this is that the majority of New Testament scholars are not orthodox. They may be believers – but theirs is a mature faith which doesn’t accept the New Testament at face value. In other words, while they accept that Jesus was at least in part historical, they also accept that the majority of the New Testament is not historically accurate. At the same time, as believers, they project into their research their own preexisting theological affirmations.

One has to wonder if the driving force behind much historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian’s genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise.

Consequently, we would be justified in asking whether ‘historical New Testament scholars’ are really the experts on the historical Jesus at all; wouldn’t someone studying mythology, comparative religion, history or sociology be better qualified to explain the motivations behind the Christian movement than someone who is seeking and inserting the savior they need to find in order to justify their beliefs?

Despite the articles subtitle,  “Why scholarly attempts to discover the ‘real’ Jesus have failed. And why that’s a good thing.” McKnight concludes without giving any indication of the benefits of the failure to discover the real Jesus. We can only guess that McKnight feels this creates a space for people to believe whatever they want to believe, without any proof, without the need of any justification; a statement I cannot tolerate because it will lead people to accept any impossible idea as historical. “If there is no proof it happened, there is also no proof that it did not happen” believers will argue.

McKnight finishes his article with an absurd statement:

As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us.

Can a historian prove that Jesus died? No. Absolutely not. Ok Ok – it does appear, given the evidence, that Jesus probably existed. A deeper analysis using all the evidence suggests the unique probability that Jesus was only believed to be historical and to have died, but never actually did so; but I’ll concede that most scholars believe Jesus to have been historical and that’s also a possibility.

However, McKnight continues “I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb”. Resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb? This is horrendously faith-based. Could any unbiased (heathen) conclude, logically, scientifically, that Jesus’ dead body getting up, walking out of his grave and ascending into heaven is more rational than any other explanation, however improbable?

Ridiculous! I fully agree that, given the lack of evidence, people can pretty much worship Jesus in any way they see fit; except by accepting – as historical – objects of obvious mythological proportions. The blending of history and belief can do nothing to bolster the historical image of Jesus to unbelievers, but everything to undermine the sanity or intelligence of the faithful.

Read McKnights full article HERE.