People often ask me, why should we bother doing historical Jesus studies? Why should we bring history into it at all? Surely if we have the four gospels and we in the church have worshiped God in Jesus Christ for all these years, we don’t need to do fresh historical work. Surely, some people say, all that historical study does is import into our discourse all sorts of prejudices from the 18th and 19th centuries about what as historians we can and can’t believe?
This is quite a complicated question, partly because the word history itself can mean things that actually happened in the past, or it can mean the way we research the things that happened in the past.
People get confused about those, especially when they say, “We today can’t believe that something like this or that would have happened.” People (some Christians) naturally get suspicious: Is historical study of Jesus going to mean that actually we are pulling away from what the Gospels tell us? Or perhaps worse, is historical study of Jesus trying to go behind the Gospels and construct a different sort of Jesus altogether?
Often it’s very difficult for us to put together what the gospels hold together effortlessly: (1) the idea of the Kingdom of God and (2) the idea of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospels, those interpret one another. As historians, we can understand or begin to understand why that should be and what it means, but if we’re not careful, we project our modern ideas back onto the gospels and then the whole thing falls apart.
Every generation has to do fresh historical study to make sure that we really are hearing what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wants to tell us through hearing those four voices to discover more and more about who Jesus was and is.
[In my book My book The New Testament in Its World, one of the things we do is] look historically at the period of Jesus’ public career and try to see it in three dimensions:
- What did Jesus’ career mean to Jesus?
- What did he mean by saying the kingdom of God is at hand, is breaking in right now?
- How did his death on the cross, both from his point of view and seeing it later, how did that affect the kingdom? How did it defeat the powers of evil? How did it make the way for the new creation to be launched at Easter?
[We also look at] the Gospels. The Gospels which are about Jesus, but which were written, most likely, around the time that Paul was killed (at the earliest), and then quite possibly over the next two or three decades. And so we are asking,
- Why are people telling the story this way? What is Mark doing with his story? Matthew with his, and so on?
- How do we see these four Gospels contributing together to the early Christians’ growing understanding of who Jesus is—and not just as a historical reminiscence, but how did he launch the kingdom of God of which we are then parts ourselves? . . .
When we make that journey through these amazing books [in the New Testament], we find that our sense of worship and mission is reoriented and refreshed.
— Adapted from The New Testament in Its World by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird.
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