Missions and the Historical Jesus

As an Evangelical Christian, I tend to take a rather dim view of the movement to discover the “Jesus of History” at least as it supposedly differs from the “Jesus of Faith.” Many who are part of the search for the “Historic Jesus” have


The controversial "Jesus Loves Osama"...
The controversial “Jesus Loves Osama” poster outside a Sydney church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


presuppositions that I would not accept:


  1. Philosophical Naturalism… the denial of real things or actual events that are not associated with or caused by natural processes (at least as they are presently understood). In other words, miracles do not happen in fact, merely in perception, and the supernatural does not exist (or at least is not relevant to historical inquiry). Therefore, Jesus did not REALLY do miracles and wasn’t REALLY divine (because those were rejected a priori).
  2. Historical Untrustworthiness of the Biblical Record. Basically, if the Bible said something happened… maybe it did or maybe it didn’t (Like the song “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in Porgy and Bess). Or maybe it happened but it got misinterpreted and mixed up.


Additionally, some criteria used by many to determine historicity seems pretty inane, to me at least. For example, the (Double) Dissimilarity Criterion that says that historically accurate facts about Jesus are dissimilar to Ancient Judaism and the Early Church. Despite the pivotal character of Jesus in history, denying his continuity with 1st century Judaism and 1st century Christianity seems to have no justification (again in my opinion). So I could simply reject the movement as a whole and ignore it. But, in fact, I find it rather interesting. And not all of those seeking to understand Jesus within a historical context start out with presuppositions that I would reject. So I have been reading “The Historical Jesus: Five Views” edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy.




The book (pages 34 and 35) references a book by Leander Keck (1971) titled “A Future for a Historical Jesus.” In it, he discusses why learning of Jesus (the real Jesus who lived and died in 1st century Palestine) is important to Christians. He listed four main reasons. I will reorder them from the least important missionally, to the most important.


A. Prevents the theological extremes of a type of Docetism at one end to a “self-validating fideism” at the other. I won’t deal with this one… it is more for theologians although we certainly can see the risks of a gnostic (or at least gnostic-ish) mindset at one side and a religious irrationalism at the other.


B. It gives credence to Christian preaching. We are told to have Jesus as our example. If we tell people that they should behave a certain way since that is in line with Jesus (in action, intent, and character) but that is not accurate, then our calls to persuade are likened to telling children to behave a certain way to make sure that they are on Santa Claus’s “NICE” list. Understanding Jesus in His full character, gives us better guidance on how we are supposed to live.


In his book “In His Steps” (1897), Charles Monroe Sheldon proposed a vow to ask the question “What Would Jesus Do?” (the inspiration of the WWJD phenomenon). But that question was to be answered with a caveat of “to the best of my understanding.” This caveat is dependent on our understanding Jesus. Sadly, even orthodox, evangelical Christians have differed wildly in this understanding. Some disagreement is good… suggests that we haven’t fallen into an unthinking creedalism. But we need to be intellectually honest in this quest… Who is Jesus? What did Jesus do? What was the character of Jesus? And “What, today, Would Jesus Do?”

Consider the picture at the top of the post… does your understanding of Jesus agree with the message… Does Jesus love Osama? Does YOUR Jesus love Osama?


C. It provides a protection (“bulwark”) against ideological distortion. Today, there are many different views of who Jesus “really” was/is. Some listed by Beillby and Eddy show a different vews (particularly by scholars):


“Among them (in not particular order) are: an eschatological prophet, a Galilean holy man, an accultic magician, an innovative rabbi, a trance-inducing psychotherapist, a Jewish sage, a political revolutionary, an Essene conspirator, an itinerant exorcist, an historicized myth, a protoliberation theologician, a peasant artisan, a Torah-observant Pharisee, a Cynic-like philosopher, a self-conscious eschatological agent, a socioeconomic reformer, a paradoxical Messianic claimant and, finally, as one who saw himself as, in some sense, the very embodiment of Yahweh-God.” (pg. 53)


I have met people who are convinced that Dan Brown‘s description of Jesus and early Christianity is correct because (amazement time… ) Dan Brown said he researched it, and it is correct (“Hey, its right there in black and white at the beginning of “The Davinci Code” so it must be true.”) Here in the Philippines, any sort of oddball belief (often originating from the US or Korea) eventually seeps into the country. Ignoring them, or blanket discounting them without thought doesn’t help. Evangelicals like the statement “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But even if that settles things for us, in missions we must share and disciple those who are bombarded with all sorts of curious innovations. I have seen documentaries on TV where the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are placed side by side with the “gospels” of Judas, Philip, and more and more. It is unconscionable that accounts with a provenance back to the earliest decades of Christianity are treated as no more reliable than accounts written centuries later and discounted by the church. We need to know what we believe and why.


D. We now live in a “pluralistic marketplace of ideas.” We either recognize this fact, embrace this fact, and address this fact, or we risk becoming culturally and intellectually marginalized. Many religions and sects reference Jesus in their understanding of faith. The Babylonian Talmud references Jesus, as does the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and Guru Granth Sahib. What is our basis for evaluating these as reliable or distorted pictures of Jesus. We no longer live a cultures where we are arguing about different flavors of Christian understanding. Every belief is everywhere (especially with the Internet). We can’t simply start with “What does the Bible say” since our neighbors may not know or even care what the Bible says. Yet people world-wide are interested in Jesus/Isa/Yeshua. Are we competent to tell people who Jesus is?


Ultimately, in missions we don’t have the luxury of dealing only with mature believers. We must deal with unbelievers, seekers, and immature believers. As such, we need to understand who Jesus was and is, why we believe that, and what our underlying principles in understanding Jesus’ character and behavior. Is our faith (a la Mark Twain) believing what we “know ain’t so”? Or is it something more. As missionaries it MUST be something more.



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