What Can We Historically Know about Jesus of Nazareth?
by Brian Chilton
As we come close to a Christian holiday, people often begin to ask, “Can we know that these events actually took place?” When it comes to Christmas, greater ambiguity exists as to particular elements pertaining to the life of Jesus (e.g. the date of Jesus’ birth) than it does for Easter. Part of this comes from the fact that the Gospels are part of a literary genre known as “bioi” (Licona 2010, 203), or ancient biographies and only focused on the core attributes of the person’s life. While we may not know the precise date of Jesus’ birth with great certainty, this doesn’t mean that we cannot know the most important aspects of Jesus’ life. Many skeptics will ask during the holidays, “How is it that we can know that anything actually took place in history? What can we know about the life of Jesus?” This article will provide a brief—and that is an understatement—evaluation about how history is evaluated and what can be known about the historical Jesus.
Is history knowable?
Skeptics will often claim, “We cannot know anything about history because we cannot know that the person recording a particular event is telling the truth.” This mentality is termed historical subjectivism which is defined by Norman Geisler as the argument “that the substance of history, unlike that studied by empirical science, is not directly observable” (Geisler 1999, 318). But if this is the case, then nothing past the present moment can truly be known with any certainty. What about that precious childhood event that shaped you? Well, extreme historical subjectivists would claim that such an event is unprovable as it is possible that you just thought that the event took place. Taken to its conclusion, the historical subjectivist has no means of knowing whether George Washington was truly the first President of the United States or whether King Henry VIII actually initiated the English Reformation. The historical realist believes that history is knowable. Historians obviously fit within the historical realist category. Luckily, there are ways that an event and/or person is deemed “historical.” The historian uses certain methodological tools to gauge the tenability of an event of history…
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