Why Don’t Scholars Agree About Jesus?

In my last post I answered the question: Was Jesus a Myth? Then provided an overview of the expert opinion and evidence that proves conclusively to any rational thinking person that yes he did indeed exist. The question I pose today is: Why Don’t Scholars Agree About Jesus? This too may seem an absurd question, surely all scholars trained in the field must agree on the identity of Jesus and the well established history of Christian origins – Don’t they? But sadly that is not the case. Do some research and you will find scholars that proclaim: Jesus was a lunatic who thought he was God; Jesus never thought he was God; Jesus was God; Jesus was one of many failed messiahs; Jesus never viewed himself as the messiah; Jesus was the messiah; Jesus was a zealot; Jesus was a pacifist; Jesus was a holy man teaching wisdom; Jesus was an apocalyptic preaching the end of the world; the New Testament is reliable; the New Testament is not reliable; there was never a single Christianity; there was always one Christianity; and — well you get the point. From the variety of proclamations listed some people might think we can never know the Real Jesus. However, it might surprise them to learn that most scholars in the field of New Testament studies and Early Christianity are actually Christians, in fact many are fairly orthodox Christians who hold the traditional view of Jesus at that.

Before proceeding further let me first provide some background information on modern scholarship. From my mass readings of scholarly books on the subject of Jesus and Christianity, and I have read a lot – The Good, The Bad and sometimes The Very Ugly, — I have found that there are two schools of scholarship in the field of New Testament Studies and Early Christianity. The first school we will call “Old School” which is the traditional view of Jesus and Christianity. Not surprisingly, scholars in this school are mostly Evangelical or Conservative Christians. The second school we will call “New School” which is a more radically skeptical view of the same subject. Not surprisingly, scholars in this school are mostly Non-Christian (i.e. Atheist/Agnostic) or very Liberal Christians. We could also further divide the New School into “Old School Skeptics” and “New School Skeptic” with the NSS being the more radical of the two — but I think that would only confuse and complicate the issue.

Note: By terms conservative and liberal I am not referring to political ideology, although I am sure there may be some overlap. Rather I am referring to their views of Jesus and Christianity i.e. a conservative has a more traditional orthodox view of Jesus & Christianity while a liberal has a less traditional and unorthodox view of the same subject.

Without getting too nuanced, the origin for the New School appears to have its roots in the late 18th century, and started to grow little by little through the 19th and into the early 20th century. However, by the late 20th century the number of skeptical scholars had grown rapidly. Why you might ask? Well one can only speculate, but I would argue it likely correlates to the rise of post-modern secularism taking root in western culture and society in general. In any event, I must point out that the New School would not view themselves as “radical skeptics”, but argue they are “critical scholars” while dismissing their counterparts trained in the same field as simply Christian Apologists. Conversely, the Old School would argue they too are “critical scholars” and dismiss much of the New School as radical skeptics, cynics and in some isolated cases – a fringe group of scholars.

Now this is all an oversimplification by my part, the reality is much more complicated i.e. there are some scholars that would not fit into either model but fall somewhere in between, and some New School scholars that hold a few traditional views and some Old School scholars that hold a few unorthodox views. Nevertheless, this summarization accurately captures the current state of modern scholarship in my view, and provides the best framework moving forward in future posts. Old School = Traditional View & Orthodox / New School = Secular View & Unorthodox.

With this framework in mind, it is the New School by in large that the mass media has fond over and consulted for “expert opinion” on publications and television documentaries over the past couple of decades. This appetite for cynical unorthodox views has paved the way and allowed for countless amounts of non-scholarly fiction (both books and accompanying “documentaries”) full of misinformation and distortions to permeate there way into the culture at large e.g. works of Dan Brown, Simcha Jacobovici & Reza Aslan (just to name a few) – none of whom are even scholars in the field. In fact, many Old School scholars have written that they too have been consulted for many of the same documentaries and publications by the media, and provided scholarly arguments and evidence against many of the views espoused by the New School scholars and non-scholars alike, only to find they did not make the cut. It seems radical skepticism is all the media (by in large) is interested in selling to the public these days. Scholars appear to have taken notice, if you want to make a name for yourself in pop culture, then publish something critical of the traditional view of Jesus, Christianity or some other outlandish claim and you are well on your way.

For anyone interested in a scholarly rebuttal to such skeptical scholars, you may want to check out “Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture” by scholars J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace. Journalist Lee Strobel, a former atheist turned Christian, has also published a book titled “The Case for the Real Jesus” in which he researched the recent arguments and claims made by cynical scholars and non-scholars alike and posed them to experts and scholars in the relevant fields to respond. Certainly worth a look for those interested.

In conclusion one might ask: Does it really matter what scholars say? I believe it does matter what trained scholars in the field think and what they are saying about Jesus. However, it should not matter to ones personal faith. My faith does not depend or waiver on what scholars or anyone else for that matter have to say about Jesus or Christianity. It is mine, between me and God and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Nobody can give it to me, or take it away. But learning what they have to say does make me a better informed Christian. My hope is that I have cleared up why there are diverging view points, and demonstrated that the traditional view of Jesus and Christianity is still very much attested to by an overwhelming amount of scholars today, just as it has been for numerous centuries. One only need look further than mainstream secular media outlets. So the next time one hears of the latest bizarre or outlandish claims, they need to consider the source: Where are they coming from? What are their views? Do they have an agenda? Then compare the claims with that which has been attested to for nearly two millennia and see if it stacks up. I will now close this post by reiterating that while scholarly opinion is important to consider, it is not the only opinions that matter. As a person of faith I strongly believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everybody: from the smallest child, to the wisest sage among us, and everybody else in between.

Thank you for reading,

God Bless!

JDN

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2 thoughts on “Why Don’t Scholars Agree About Jesus?

  1. Some readers have taken issue with the contention that Reza Aslan is not a scholar. Allow me to clarify, I stated he (among others) was not a scholar in the field. A scholar is one who has obtained expertise in a particular field, typically by obtaining a PhD after years of study. Many point out that while novelist, Dan Brown, and sensationalist extraordinaire, Simcha Jacobovici, do not meet such a requirement, Reza Aslan does. However, while Aslan does possess a PhD, it is in the Sociology of Religion. My comments in this post while referencing the three clearly stated, “none of whom are even scholars in the field”. Therefore, while Aslan’s credentials make him a scholar on the sociology of religion, it does NOT give him any expertise on the subject of Jesus, or early Christianity. Hence, he is NOT a scholar in the relevant field. To be a biblical scholar on the subject of Jesus and early Christianity, one must have expertise in Judea, Christian and Roman antiquity, along with expertise in New Testament studies, early Christian writings, and so on – such things that Mr. Aslan clearly does not have any special expertise in. All that said, even if Aslan was a scholar in the relevant field of Jesus and early Christian antiquity, it would not change my thesis for this particular post. I concede many such scholars exist and have some very unorthodox views concerning Jesus and early Christian history. My point was that there are many more scholars that hold to the traditional (orthodox) view of Jesus and early Christian history, and that while scholarly expert opinion is important, none of it should matter to one’s faith. I hope this has clarified the matter. God Bless! JDN

    Note, for anyone that does not know who Aslan is. He is an author of a book, titled “Zealot”, which argued Jesus was a radical zealot who was crucified for his insurrection. Real scholars don’t by his thesis (though a small few once did in the past), and will all attest that his book is filled with numerous historical inaccuracies, but is otherwise well written. Nevertheless, with the success of the book he became a bit of a star in Liberal media circles, and later had a series on CNN, where he rightfully came under scrutiny for taking part in the cannibal ritual of an obscure Hindu cult called the Aghori. However, he later parted ways with CNN after tweeting vulgar and profane comments towards the POTUS … which is somewhat surprising given that network’s open contempt for our POTUS.

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  2. Some readers have asked how I can earnestly claim in various posts what “most scholars” think on a this, or that, particular issue, or controversy. It is a fair and legitimate question. After all, while I’ve read a wide variety of books from scholars across the spectrum, it is impossible to poll or know what every scholar may think on any given subject. However, as I pointed out in the post above, most scholars in this field can be described as what I classify, “Old School” (OS) or “New School” (NS). The OS largely advocate for the traditional views concerning Jesus and early Christianity (history), while the NS take a more radically skeptical view of the same subject. Some readers also point out that several scholars, from what I call the NS, would claim on certain topics that their views are the majority view among scholars, while others, from what I term the OS, insist their views are actually the majority among scholars. Therefore, how can I (or anyone else for that matter) take a side as to who is in fact right? The purpose of this post was intended to answer such questions, but perhaps I did not make my point as effectively as I had hoped, so allow me to address that specific issue a little further.

    The vast majority of scholars, that have spent years studying Jesus and early Christianity, are conservative and/or evangelical Christians. In other words, OS scholars. How big a majority, or ratio, is hard to say, but even most NS scholars when pressed on the topic would concede that what I have just stated is a fact. In fact, when many NS scholars assert their view on a particular issue is the “majority view” among scholars, look closely at what they are saying and you will see that they are actually conceding the opposite. Specifically, such NS scholars when stating such, are actually asserting their view to be the majority among “critical” scholars. Moreover, that in their view the term “critical” scholars exclude conservative & evangelical Christians, because such scholars (in their view) are “bias”. My … how convenient. Exclude a whole category of scholars in your field of expertise that happen to disagree with you, and who incidentally are also the majority of scholars in the field, then yup, you would be right to assert that your view is in actuality the “majority” view … if it is indeed the majority view of those remaining scholars. That is not only very bold, but it is also very misleading.

    Now its true that the NS is growing, and may now be the dominant view in Liberal Academia, e.g. the Ivy League schools of Yale or Harvard, and State Universities such as UCLA, Berkley, North Carolina State, and so on. However, that is not the case among scholars from other college institutions, e.g. The Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, Westmont, Trinity, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Baptist University, and so on, just to name a few. Scholars from these institutions are OS. But again, the vast majority of ALL scholars in the field are OS. Once more, the NS scholars know this, which is why they (most) always use the sleight of hand with the term “critical” scholars, thereby eliminating the OS scholars altogether. However, if you press the NS scholars on this claim, and ask: What do the “total number” of scholars in your field think? Then they are forced to include the OS, and must either admit their position is in fact not the majority view, or copout and state they do not know. Also, I will point out again the OS would argue they too are “critical” scholars, meaning they are “serious” scholars, and dismiss much of the NS as radical skeptics, cynics and in some isolated cases – a fringe group of scholars. And since the OS actually have the numbers on their side, who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to dispute that argument.

    All that said, when I state in various posts on this blog that most scholars, both OS & NS, agree on this, or that point, I am not simply claiming that most scholars agree. As I have hopefully made clear, most scholars are OS, so such would not serve my point when trying to convince a skeptic. But I am arguing that even the NS, which does not agree with the OS on a whole host of things, agrees by and large with the OS position. In other words, if you can get these two schools of thought to agree on anything, then you can probably bank on that particular point being a fact.

    I hope this has clarified the matter. God Bless! JDN

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