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The Unhistorical Jesus

Douglas Gilliland


Inevitably, when the US media wants to interview a scholar on the subject of the life of Christ, the media chooses from their ready pool of liberal scholars such as the participants from the Jesus Seminar. A recent example of this was the PBS network TV investigative news program Frontline which aired a series titled "From Jesus to Christ." This series was a prime-time showcase for scholarship such liberal scholars as John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Helmut Koester, and others. Great emphasis was placed on "evidence" from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, etc. Conservative scholars are not consulted or are marginalized as liberal scholars are lauded.

While not written specifically as a response to the PBS series, the 1996 book, "The Historical Jesus", by Gary Habermas, takes on these liberal scholars by dissecting their arguments. The book has two parts. The first part of the book looks at the recent history of the historical Jesus scholarship. The second part examines the actual evidence for the historical Jesus. By critiquing the critics and providing an Thus, the book presents both a negative and a positive case. Habermas effectively deals with the writings of the early Church Fathers as well as those of the early skeptics against Christianity. This paper examines some of the key evidence which Haberman presents in his case for Christianity.


Historical Tracing

Dr. Samuel Mikolaski's "Theological Sentences" traces the development of the historical Jesus over the past couple of centuries. Habermas has a similar approach in his introduction to the subject. This paper does not discuss how we got here, but rather the current state of the situation.

The Trilemma

The approach of Josh McDowell in his popular book, "More Than a Carpenter", is the Lord, Lunatic, Liar trilemma. McDowell borrowed this argument from C. S. Lewis. The problem with this formulation is that it does not take into account the actual critics positions. This "trilemma" needs to include a fourth category, "Legend" as that's the current dominant position of the skeptics. To have an effective Christian witness we need to understand the positions against the faith and have appropriate responses to them. In fairness to McDowell, he does first lay a foundation for the reliability of the NT.

Skeptical of the Skeptics

Ironically, the news media is skeptical of conservative Christianity, but not of the skeptics claims. Applying many of the same techniques of the skeptics against their own thesis is an effective tool for criticism. Habermas does that quite nicely in the book. In particular, Habermas notes that the members of the Jesus seminar commit the genetic fallacy when they address the origin of the idea rather than the facticity of the idea. Futher, numerous examples of arguments from silence can be found in the skeptics writings. Finally, the a priori rejection of miracles is criticized.

The Gnostic Sources and the Modern Day Gnostics

A major part of the quest of the liberal scholars is to find textual evidence to support their flimsy theories. The discovery of the so-called "Gospel of Thomas" has added fuel to the fire of the Gnostic scholars. One of the stronger proponents of this view is Elaine Pagels, of Princeton University who wrote a book titled, "The Gnostic Gospels".

One claim of these modern day Gnostics is that there was a wide expression of Christianity in the first few centuries with the claim made that there were hundreds of Gospels floating around. They claim is that the Church autocratically forced the canonical Gospels onto the rest of the world making a sort of "orthodoxy by definition" or "orthodoxy by exclusion". The discovery of texts such as the Gnostic "Gospel of Thomas" is used by these scholars as proof of the diversity of early Christianity. The Jesus Seminar goes as far as to title Thomas "The Fifth Gospel".

Habermas points out several factors often dismissed by the modern Gnostics which mitigate against their thesis.

  1. The most important point he notes is that it shows an ignorance of the historical process as it actually happened.Early Church Fathers have frequent quotations of the canonical Gospels, for instance. There is an "identifiable chain of witnesses" to Christ in the canonical Gospels. This is lacking in the Gnostic Gospels. Gnosticism was present from the earliest days of the Church era and there is a historical continuity in the orthodox that is not present in the Gnostics.
  2. A second factor is that dating of the Gospel of Thomas is much later than the canonical Gospels. Thomas dates from the middle second century as much as 100 years later than the canonical sources. As the critical scholars try to push the date of Thomas earlier, they also try to place the canonical Gospels later. Koester, for instance, dates the Gospel of Thomas as being as early as the first century. Formal establishment of the canon is not the same thing as informal recognition of the authoritative books by the early church.
  3. Further, Thomas is not in narrative form like the canonical Gospels, but rather is a collection of "sayings." Many of these are familiar to the person who has read the canonical Gospels, but some of the sayings are quite odd and out of place when viewed from the canonical Gospels. Assertions are made from Thomas which are easily cleared up by reading the canonical Gospels.
  4. Additionally, the elements of the cross and empty tomb are not present in Thomas. This amounts to an argument from silence that there were differing stories of the life of Christ in the Early Church. A sayings Gospel would, by definition, not have the elements of a narrative. The Gnostic Gospels do not explicitly deny the resurrection of Christ, but in fact affirm it.




The Kerygma in 1 Cor

Habermas and Mikolaski both make note of the early dating of the account in 1 Cor 15 of the passion and resurrection. Although Paul wrote 1 Cor in the 50's (still close to the original dates), they reflect an earlier tradition of eyewitness tradition which dates to the late 30's when Paul traveled to Jerusalem and met with Peter and others. Thus, this text provides the earliest record of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, less than a decade after the event itself. This is useful since atheist Michael Martin has stated that finding early evidence to support orthodoxy is necessary for historicity. See for the atheistics response to Habermas.


The arguments of the skeptics exist to serve their presuppositions. Many of these presuppositions are based in an anti-supernatural bias. Others have Gnostic tendencies and look hard for evidence of Gnostic thought existing in parallel with the historical orthodox Church. There is no concensus with the skeptics with each one casting Jesus in the light of their own personal opinions. The fact that each of the scholars culls down the data to make their own Jesus testifies to the facticity of the varied NT evidence.

The book by Habermas is an effective case for the historical record of the New Testament with regard to the life of Christ. His discrediting of sources which appear to be friendly to the Christian message, but are probably not authentic, such as the Acts of Pilate, adds to his credibility. The very fact that his book has been attacked by such groups as the Internet Infidels demonstrates that it has been effective.

My Letter to PBS About the Frontline Program

This is the letter than I mailed off to PBS in response to their Frontline "From Jesus to Christ" series.

The "scholars" Frontline chose for this series presented a one-sided view of Early Church History.

These "scholars" have each been refuted point-by-point by a number of fine recent books such as Gregory Boyd's (1995) "Cynic, Sage, or Son of God?", Gary Habermas' (1996), "The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ", Wilkin's/Moreland's (1995), "Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus", Ben Witherington's (1997), "The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth", Luke Timothy Johnson's (1996), "The Real Jesus", or I. Howard Marshall's (1977), "I Believe in the Historical Jesus." Many other examples could be cited.

Will PBS choose to consult conservative Christian scholars in the future for needed balance, or will these one sided presentations continue to be unanswered by locking out conservative Christians?

I guess we can be thankful for one thing: the unbalanced presentation by the media such as Frontline has created a market for these conservative books as people of faith seek answers to the skeptical challenge to their faith.

Copyright 2001 - Douglas Gilliland